Lower Columbia River commercial fishermen have joined with conservationists in opposing a giant mining proposal in Southwest Alaska, saying the operation would damage the world's most productive wild salmon run.
The so-called Pebble Mine would be located at the headwaters of the Kvichack and Nushagak rivers, which feed Bristol Bay.
Many lower Columbia gillnetters earn most of their annual income from Bristol Bay's massive sockeye salmon runs, which occurs each June.
"We oppose the Pebble Mine, adamantly," Hobe Kytr, administrator of Astoria-based Salmon for All, a Columbia gillnetting advocacy group, said last week.
"Alaskan fisheries are what support our lower Columbia fishing families because they can't learn a living here. … (Bristol Bay) has such productive salmon runs because it is unspoiled. Why in the world would you risk spoiling it? The salmon can be harvested in perpetuity as long as they don't botch it up," Kytr said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month said extracting billions of pounds of gold, copper and molybdenum from the region could result in the direct loss of up to 87 miles of streams and nearly 7 square miles of wetlands, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"We conclude that, at a minimum, mining at this scale would cause the loss of spawning and rearing habitat for multiple species of anadromous and resident fish," according to the EPA watershed assessment.
If one of the mine's massive tailings dams failed, more than 30 miles of salmon-bearing streams would be destroyed, and others would have "greatly degraded habitat" for decades, EPA said.
At the request of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, EPA will hold a public hearing Thursday in Seattle to discuss how the Pebble Mine might affect Washington state jobs. The hearing will be at 2 p.m. in the Federal Building.
In a written statement, Cantwell said 1,000 Washingtonians have commercial fishing licenses in Bristol Bay, and that the fishery there is worth about $200 million to this state's economy.
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"With thousands of Washington state jobs dependent on healthy, sustainable Bristol Bay salmon, I will continue fighting to ensure a final decision is based on sound science," Cantwell wrote.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, a consortium of developers of the proposed mine, said it has budgeted $107 million to conduct further studies and prepare a permit application for the proposed mine, whose true scope cannot be known until the application is submitted.
EPA based its fisheries assessment on the size of known mineral deposits in the region. The amount of ore processed could range between 2 billion and 6.5 billion metric tons, the agency said. That would require a mine pit and tailings impoundments that could spread over an area of up to 16.8 square miles, according to the agency.
The agency's statements have caused a firestorm of reaction from Republicans and development interests, which have been gunning for EPA.
Proponents of the mine tout the employment it would bring to a job-hungry region. And they've knocked EPA for speaking against mining before developers even submit a permit application.
"Despite endless acrimony over Pebble, not everybody opposes its development," writes Paul Jenkins, the editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com website.
He noted that the only measure of local sentiment was an advisory election last fall in boroughs around the area.
"The outcome was 280-246 to block Pebble — remarkable considering the campaign's bitter ferocity," Jenkins said.
A conflict is brewing over which agency makes the decision over permitting the mine. Such rulings usually are the job of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But it's possible EPA, under the Clean Water Act, could veto any project it concludes would damage water supplies, shellfish beds or fisheries.