Alaskans alternately thanked the Environmental Protection Agency or told its representatives to back off Monday night at an Anchorage hearing on the federal agency's draft study of the effects of large-scale mining at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
The study released last month was conducted at the request of a half dozen Alaska Native entities that asked the EPA to veto large-scale mining in the region because of its harmful effect on fish habitat, especially the salmon that return to freshwater rivers and streams to breed each year.
The draft study concluded that large-scale mining would have significant negative impacts on fish habitat even without a major problem such as the failure of a dam holding mine tailings. It added fuel to the bitter debate waged in the state over development of the Pebble prospect, which carries the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum, according to its owners.
The EPA study said the prospect's low-grade ore means a mine will be economic only if conducted over a large area, and therefore, a large amount of waste material will be produced.
Under section 404(c) of the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA can prohibit the use of an area as a disposal site for fill material even before a company applies for a permit if discharge will have unacceptable adverse effects on municipal water supplies, wildlife or fish, and even if other federal agencies gave their OK.
The so-called veto authority has been used sparingly over the decades, according to the agency. The hearing Monday was for testimony on the thoroughness of the study of the potential effects.
"What we're trying to do is make sure we get the science right," said EPA Region 10 chief Dennis McLerran.
At risk is habitat in the vast Bristol Bay fishery, which accounts for 46 percent of the world's wild sockeye salmon and an annual average commercial harvest between 1990 and 2010 of 27.5 million fish. That doesn't include the sport anglers who target salmon, trout and char, or the subsistence harvest of all the species.
Thomas Tilden, tribal chief for Dillingham and a commercial fisherman since 1965, said the study underestimates the importance of fish to the people of the region. It's not just salmon, he said, but species that never reach saltwater, such as grayling, pike, whitefish and suckers.
"Fish is who we are," he said. "That is our economy."
But others at the meeting said they resented the EPA presence as an overreach of federal authority and an attack on state sovereignty. The Pebble prospect is on state land designated for mineral exploration.
John Sturgeon of Anchorage said it was unfair of the EPA to thwart the state permitting process that would allow mine developers to explain how they could extract minerals without harming the watershed.
State Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, said the EPA actions are precedent setting and would scare off potential investors in the state.
Abe Williams, president of Paug-Vik Corp., a Native shareholder corporation based in Naknek, which has land adjacent to the Pebble prospect, said mining represents jobs in villages that are losing residents. He called for a longer comment period on the study and a dialogue on the mine's effects.
"Do not extinguish Native people's opportunities through fear and emotion," he said.
Comments on the study will be accepted until July 23.