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Environment | Water

Why An Alaska Mine Worries Fishermen In The Northwest

SEATTLE — Fisherman’s Terminal is all a-bustle this time of year.

Bearded, weathered-looking men are checking nets, sanding down hulls and climbing around on boats. They’re getting ready to make the trip to the rich salmon-fishing grounds of Alaska, as they’ve done for decades.

Some of these vessels are bound for Bristol Bay, in Southwestern Alaska. It’s the home of one of the world’s largest runs of sockeye salmon. In fact, all five species of Pacific salmon spawn in the bay’s freshwater tributaries.

But Bristol Bay could also become the home of a new mine to extract copper gold and other minerals.

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a risk assessment study on how mining could impact the ecosystem there, and fishermen in the Northwest are watching the review process closely.

Ray Foresman and Jason Lake are reconnecting steering lines on Foresman’s 60-foot fishing boat, the Silver Isle.

Lake doesn’t miss a beat when I ask him about Pebble Mine –- the one that could be developed near Bristol Bay. He’s been fishing there for 25 years.

“They put that mine in and it’s going to be the worst thing for Bristol Bay,” Lake says, pausing on his way down into the boat’s hold. “Look what every other mine’s done. It’s just a sad deal.”

Lake is not alone in his concerns. Fishermen around the Northwest fear mining in that pristine watershed could destroy salmon spawning habitat and hurt their industry. Nearly 1,000 Washingtonians hold commercial fishing permits in Bristol Bay, bringing in over $100 million a year in revenue to the state. Sport fisherman in Oregon and Washington also bring in close to $100 million each year from fishing in the Bristol Bay watershed.

View Bristol Bay, Alaska in a larger map

That’s prompted politicians in both states to call on the Environmental Protection Agency to step in.

And the EPA listened.

It issued a risk-assessment report over 1,000 pages long. It examines the potential impact of mining on 20,000 square miles surrounding Bristol Bay.

The report says mining could block streams and reduce water quality. Road development and waste storage facilities could destroy habitat.

Just to be clear though, the mining companies haven’t submitted any permit applications to mine.

Mike Heatwole is a spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, which represents the mining companies interested in Bristol Bay. He says the EPA is jumping the gun.

“For such an important subject to be rushing through a study when there is no permit application and full information in front of an agency is of extreme concern to us and we’re not alone in that,” Heatwole says.

The Alaska attorney general wrote a letter to the EPA saying the agency’s review is “unlawfully preemptive, arbitrary, capricious and vague”.

The letter also said the state will explore all available legal options if the EPA tries to exert any authority under the Clean Water Act.

Dennis McLerran is the head of EPA Region 10, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He says the EPA has not made any decisions about regulatory action on Pebble Mine. Right now they’re gathering information.

“We think we have very clear authority to do science and study watersheds and we’ve used that extensively around the country,” McLerran says. “So any discussion about regulatory authority is something that should come later down the road.”

The EPA will hold public hearings about the report in Seattle and Alaska.

The Pebble Partnership is in the process of finalizing plans for the mine and could submit a permit application by the end of the year.

As for Bristol Bay, it’ll be open for salmon fishing on Friday.

The Seattle meeting will be on Thursday at 2 p.m. in the Jackson Federal Building at 915 2nd Avenue.

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