The federal Environmental Protection Agency heard from several hundred people in Anchorage this week about their thoughts on a draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment that stands to play a role in whether or not the Pebble mine will be developed. The EPA said they were in Alaska “to make sure we get the science right” in the study, but with their testimony, boos, cheers and applause, the people packed into an auditorium at the University of Alaska Anchorage dwelled mainly on whether they thought the EPA had a right to be doing such studies in the first place or not.
While more than 100 people testified for and against development of the Pebble mine during more than a four hour period on June 4, many others in the audience, armed with signs in favor of or opposed to either the mine or the EPA, ignored rules set down by a facilitator and applauded, booed or cheered testimony from either side.
The EPA has the power under the Clean Water Act, to prohibit use of an area for disposal of fill material if such discharges will have adverse effects on water, wildlife or fish. Mine opponents fear development of the Pebble mine would result in such adverse action, while proponents of the mine say they can avoid such incidences.
Many speakers, including Dillingham commercial fisherman and tribal leader Tom Tilden, spoke of the importance of the fish to the Bristol Bay economy and cultural well-being. “Fish is who we are,” Tilden said. “This is our economy.”
Others, including leaders of Alaska Native villages in Bristol Bay, spoke about the economic opportunities of mining, and the population losses due to lack of employment.
“Do not extinguish Native people’s opportunities through fear and emotion,” said Abe Williams, head of an Alaska Native corporation based in Naknek.
Retired Alaska senate President Rick Halford said the state’s lax enforcement of water quality standards was why the federal government got involved. “You are here at the request of the original people of the area and of the overwhelming majority of the population of the area,” Halford said.
An attorney for Trustees for Alaska said her public interest law firm had to litigate to get information on what the state has authorized and what Pebble has done at its exploration site at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed.
Others, like John Shively, the CEO of the Pebble Partnership, said the EPA was moving too quickly and more time was needed to collect comments on the draft document.
His stance was backed by many in Alaska’s business community, from the Alaska Chamber of Commerce to support industries for Alaska’s non-renewable resources.
Dennis McLaren, the EPA administrator for Region 10 in Seattle, said the request to extend the comment period is under consideration.
The EPA meanwhile has announced its independent scientific peer review panel for the draft document. More information is at