The prospect of the Pebble Mine is a looming figure for many in Bristol Bay.
While the Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward with a scientific assessment of the watershed, those of various industries connected to the salmon population would like to see further action. Therefore, 17 stakeholders are in Juneau this week to address legislators on the matter of a 404(c) process under the Clean Water Act to seek support for the current assessment.
A 404(c) would give the EPA authority to determine and take action on allowing or denying the discharge of dredged or fill materials at the site. The examination the EPA is currently undergoing will provide more information but will not dictate action.
Those bringing their case for the assessment include Bristol Bay residents, tribe representatives, native corporations, business owners, commercial and sport fishermen, subsistence users and others.
One of them, Lindsey Bloom, put it, "We're really trying to get the message that even though the EPA is a federal agency, that this is a local initiative and that this is unprecedented that these stakeholders have joined together to ask for this." Bloom is a board member of Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association and a member of other commercial fishing groups. She lives in Juneau but has a boat and permit in Bristol Bay.
The group is concerned that the mine could pose a devastating threat to the area's fish population.
Katherine Carscallen, representing area commercial fishermen and Trout Unlimited, said all of Bristol Bay's lifestyles and economic engines are intertwined with the environment and so the uncertainty of if the mine will actually happen is a looming threat. She said the current assessment was originally initiated by Bristol Bay tribe requests and this is the next step.
Bloom agreed this is a big point, saying a decision and action on the matter provides a level of certainty for businesses plus investments and infrastructure upgrades, adding that such a decision would apply to all discharges so the region would be reassured if another company ever expressed interest in mining there.
"So if the EPA doesn't do this there's sort of this cloud over our industry's head that it may be harmful to fisheries in the future," she said.
"It'll save a lot of anguish and grief if they make a decision," said Chris Branham, who operates a fly fishing lodge in Katmai National Park.
Bloom said it's hoped such a process could start next year.
Carscallen said another benefit of the 404(c) is that it would be a scientific assessment from a non-biased party that has no stake in the project. She said this is a reason stakeholders don't trust information from Pebble that dismisses any claims of affecting the fish.
Tom Crafford, director of the Department of Natural Resource's Office of Project Management and Permitting, said there have been observations and assessments done previously in the area but not from anyone without a direct interest in it.
"There hasn't been any assessment I would say is truly objective and peer-reviewed," he said.
The stakeholders are sure the mine could spell trouble for the fish and the businesses tied to it. "Our response is you can't build that mass of mining operation without affecting the underlying watershed," Branham said.
"The bottom line is all of our livelihoods depend on that wild salmon and that 404(c) is the best shot we think we have," Carscallen said.
For example, Joel Chenet is a Kodiak chef who promotes salmon across the country and abroad. He said the helping people understand the quality of Alaska's wild fish over farm-raised is an big part of this.
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