Pebble opponents hammer EPA for changed course at Dillingham meeting

Anuska Wysoki from Koliganek told EPA its withdrawal of proposed Clean Water Act restrictions “is a threat to me and my people and our very existence as a people of this land.” (Photo by KDLG)

The Environmental Protection Agency is backing away from the use of preemptive Clean Water Act restrictions against large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. That comes as part of a settlement with the Pebble Limited Partnership, and the company now said it is preparing to file for permits.

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EPA is taking public comment on its proposed withdrawl, and is holding two meetings in Bristol Bay to hear from residents directly.

The EPA staff ran into the palpable disappointment of well over a hundred residents Wednesday afternoon.

(KDLG has since learned that local police and state troopers were contacted by EPA criminal investigators asking about the “mood” in town and whether security was necessary to protect the bureaucrats.)

Dozens testified over three and a half hours, most speaking from the heart about their love for the region and their existential fear of a large mine.

Bristol Bay’s largest hub sits downstream of and more than a hundred miles as the crow flies from one of the largest copper and gold deposits in North America.

It is home to some of Pebble’s most ardent opponents.

All who spoke Wednesday, including Peter Christopher from New Stuyahok, called for their one-time ally EPA to reverse its current course.

“I would appreciate if you guys would pass that on to Scott Pruitt, to consider not withdrawing from the Clean Water Act,” Christopher said.

The EPA staff on hand spoke at length about the Trump administration’s approach.

Palmer Hough, from EPA’s Wetlands Division, reminded the audience that the agency had never finalized the pre-emptive restrictions, and is in no way limited from still blocking mining with Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.

But if that authority is used, it will now likely happen within the normal permitting process, after an Environmental Impact Statement has been completed.

Dan Dunaway from Dillingham told the EPA he’s not sure the Obama administration was following a just course, but he doesn’t necessarily like the alternative either.

“I get a sense that the process for mining permits, there’s not really a clear avenue to get to a ‘no mine’ versus ‘a mine’. I think the process for mining permits in that sense is somewhat flawed and stacked against those of us who do not want to see a mine,” Dunaway said.

The Pebble deposit is located on state lands set aside for mineral development.

Sensing the state was not up to the task of protecting the ecosystem and downstream fishery, Bristol Bay tribes asked for federal intervention back in 2010.

That triggered the EPA’s Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which led to the proposed mining restrictions.

This was an outcome Katherine Carscallen, a commercial fisherman from Dillingham, wants to see upheld.

“Our state permitting process is not equipped to consider the long term impact of Pebble’s ‘phase one’ plan, which is what I consider it, but the domino effect of the mining district this would bring,” Carscallen said. “That’s why 404(c) allows for proactive decision, and there’s no better place to apply this than Bristol Bay.”

Alaska state House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, who hails from Dillingham and represents the region, blasted the EPA for backing down, and also agreed Alaska doesn’t do enough to protect its salmon habitat.

“That’s been the history of our state that all major development projects get the benefit of the doubt. That’s just been a fact of life in Alaska,” Edgmon said. “It’s time to change that now. EPA can play a large role in that. Please don’t defy the wishes of the people of the region, the people of the great state of Alaska, and our country as whole.”

Most of those who lined up to speak to EPA Wednesday have done so many times over the past seven years.

The opposition that focused on the federal side felt they had won the battle under President Barack Obama, but the rug was pulled out from under them after the 2016 election.

Robin Samuelson from Dillingham told EPA again, and probably not for the last time, that the world’s greatest sockeye salmon fishery and its intact ecosystem deserve unique protection.

“My people here rely on this resource and be damned if we’re going to see that mine happen,” Samuelson thundered, before wrapping up with a catchy new zinger. “You guys better stay the ‘Environmental Protection Agency’ and not ‘empty promises to America.’”

The EPA planned to be in Iliamna for a second listening session Thursday. The public comment period closes Oct. 17.