Commercial Fishermen, Indigenous People Unite to Fight Mine in Alaska

The Nushagak River, draining into Bristol Bay in Alaska. (AlaskaTrekker via Wikipedia)

(CN) – In the sleepy and remote village of Dillingham in southwestern Alaska, there has historically been tension between the indigenous populations, who take a subsistence approach to catching salmon, and commercial fishermen, who take in half a billion annually by trawling one of the world’s most productive fisheries at Bristol Bay. 

Both groups, however, are united against a potential mining project that they believe would devastate their way of life. 

The Pebble Mine is a large deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum located at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. The deposit was first discovered in the 1980s and multinational corporations began seriously pursuing its development in the 2000s. 

Those who want to develop the mine say it will create high-paying jobs for locals and reduce America’s dependence on foreign countries for the provision of raw materials. Opponents say toxic discharge from the mine could foul the home of the world’s largest salmon run, bankrupting the mammoth fishing industry and destroying the local ecology. 

“It’s one of the unique things about this whole fight,” said Lindsay Layland, deputy director of the United Tribes at Bristol Bay. “You have groups typically at odds over subsistence versus sport fishing, for instance, but the one thing we can agree on is the mine moving forward is a bad idea.”

Both groups also believe the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision that could allow the mining project to move forward was politically motivated. 

On July 30, the EPA announced it would withdraw a previous scientific determination that blocked development of the mine, but agency staffers recently told CNN the decision was actually made in June after President Donald Trump met with Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy. The two met aboard Air Force One on June 26, while it idled on a tarmac in the state during a stop as the president made his way to the G-20 summit. 

EPA staffers told CNN that they were informed of the decision the day after the June 26 meeting. 

Dunleavy, who has publicly supported the Pebble Mine, has met with Trump four times so far this year.

In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a scientific report advising against the mine, cautioning that any use of the surrounding water would imperil the salmon fishery and the environment. 

Pebble Limited Partnership, the company formed to develop the mine, sued the agency soon after it made its recommendation, and, in 2017, the parties announced a settlement that stipulated the EPA would withdraw its determination. 

However, after a flood of public comments in 2018, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the determination would remain in place after all.

Finally, on July 30, the agency announced it would withdraw its determination advising against the mine to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move forward with an approval process that could make way for a mining operation that federal scientists have concluded poses a grave threat to a pristine area. 

“The science of this development has remained the same,” Layland said. “The only thing that has changed is the politics and that’s why this project is advancing.”

Members of the Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, a coalition of fishermen trying to protect the region, also believe that the EPA’s decision was based on sound science and that the reversal is politically-motivated. 

“I’m furious. This decision reeks of collusion and politics,” Bristol Bay resident and commercial fisherman Robin Samuelsen said in a statement. “Even those who are extremely pro-development have raised concerns about the negative impacts of this mine on Bristol Bay. In the face of those concerns, it is shocking that what few protections remain for this region are being further eroded. It is clear that the Trump and Dunleavy administrations are corrupt as ever and colluding with the mining company directly. Those two will do all they can to push forward a dangerous project that threatens our way of life in Bristol Bay.” 

Dunleavy said in a recent statement that the project should be “scrutinized and examined under a fair and rigorous permitting process prescribed by law.”

“That was not the case under the EPA’s unprecedented preemptive veto,” he added. 

Recent EPA statements also allege that the agency’s 2014 determination was not actually based on science but was driven by the Obama administration’s own political considerations. 

“The preemptive veto was an action by an Administration that sought to vastly expand EPA’s authority to regulate land use on state, private and Native-owned lands throughout the United States, and in doing so kill one of America’s most important mineral projects before a development plan was proposed or a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) permitting review was undertaken,” Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier said in a statement in which he also thanked Dunleavy for his work on behalf of the mine.

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