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Bristol Bay residents tell EPA how they feel about Pebble Mine

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times

Federal officials weighing potential restrictions on large-scale mining ventures in Bristol Bay got an earful this past week in Dillingham from commercial, subsistence and sport fishermen concerned about adverse environmental affects of mining.

Of major concern to proponents and opponents of the proposed large scale copper, gold and molybdenum Pebble Mine is whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will decide to impose section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.

Under that section, the EPA may exercise a veto over the specification by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or by a state of a site for the discharge of dredged or fill material from a mine. The EPA may also prohibit or otherwise restrict the specification of a site under Section 404(c) with regard to any existing or potential disposal site before a permit application has been submitted to or approved by the corps or a state.

In effect, Section 404(c) authority may be exercised before a permit is applied for, while an application is pending, or after a permit has been issued, EPA officials note.

While the corps processes some 80,000 permit actions annually, the EPA has used its Section 404(c) authority sparingly, with only 12 final veto actions issued since 1972.

Still, Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for EPA Region 10 in Seattle, was clear in his opening statements to the group gathered at a public school in Dillingham on June 3, saying "it is very important for us to hear from the people who live here. We take our trust responsibility very, very seriously.

"We are trying to figure out through watershed assessment if it is appropriate for the EPA to get involved with 404(c) at this time," he said.

McLerran noted that the EPA had asked tribes from the watershed to consult with them, and they have; and that the EPA has also met with local corporations.

"We are trying to be very open and transparent in this process, so everyone knows what we are doing and has a chance to be involved," he said.

EPA officials in Seattle confirmed later that the assessment process, which will run through 2012, will include data from a variety of sources. A request for studies done by the Pebble Partnership has been made, said Hanady Kader, press officer for EPA Region 10.

"We are looking at all the data we can get our hands on," she said. "If there is data out there, we are going to look at it."

While the assessment process is scheduled to run through 2012, the EPA hopes to have a draft assessment available later this year for stakeholders to review, she said.

McLerran was accompanied by several EPA officials, including Robert M. Sussman, senior policy counsel; Nancy Stoner, assistant administrator for water; and Palmer Hough, environmental scientist for water.

Views on mine [SUBHED]

They faced an eclectic group of Bristol Bay residents, none of whom spoke in favor of the mine.

"Why on the world would we ever think of doing something like this when we have a renewable resource that thousands of people count on, and a lifestyle that has gone on for generations, and all that would be in jeopardy?" asked Bella Hammond, widow of the late Gov. Jay Hammond.

"Thanks to the EPA for being here and listening and learning and realizing what we are faced with," Hammond said. "We have a resource I don't think can be matched anywhere, and I think is very vulnerable to a mining operation.

"I think of the social issues, of the lifestyle that people have enjoyed for generations, and I think those things will be damaged or disappear."

Kim Williams, of Nunumta Alukesti, Caretakers of the Land, spoke of the importance of the ecosystem not only to salmon, but to white fish, other fish, birds and more. "It is really important for us to think about future generations," Williams said. "My father is a commercial fisherman and my own children are deckhands now. The hydrology of this system is really hard to replace. It is really a renewable resource that we are protecting."

Robin Samuelsen, president and chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. and a lifelong Bristol Bay fisherman, spoke of generations of his family fishing in Bristol Bay, and how money earned fishing helped put his son through college, and will put two of his grandsons through college.

"I don't go to D.C. and destroy your culture," Samuelsen said. "Please don't let this foreign company from Canada and England come and destroy our culture."

Samuelsen and others told EPA officials that they do not trust state agencies to protect them from mining interests. "We need protection out here," he said. "We don't need foreign companies coming in here and destroying our region, our culture."

"This is a monster mine," said Rick Halford, former president of the Alaska state Senate.

"Listen to the people whose economic livelihood is on the line, to the people whose soul is fed by salmon and whose hearts are in Bristol Bay."

Dylan Braund, a fourth generation Alaska fisherman who has fished Bristol Bay for 18 years, told the EPA that Pebble is just the tip of the iceberg. There needs to be something outside of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process," he said. "That is why 404(c) is important. We need the 404(c) process."

This report is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round. Margaret Bauman can be reached at mbauman@alaskanewspapers.com, or by phone at 907-348-2438.