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Fisheries board asks lawmakers for review of permit system

Elizabeth Bluemink

The Alaska Board of Fisheries has sent a letter to state House and Senate leaders asking for a comprehensive legislative review of the state's permitting system in light of the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska.

"While the BOF recognizes that no specific permitting plan has yet been proposed for the development and operation of the Pebble Mine, the board is still very concerned about the Pebble Mine development because of its potential magnitude," the letter states.

Pebble is a massive copper and gold prospect that, if built, would be one of the largest mines of its kind in the world, producing billions of dollars worth of copper and gold. But the project is controversial due to its location near the headwaters of two rivers that feed Bristol Bay's world-class salmon fisheries.

The seven-member Board of Fisheries decided to send the letter to lawmakers after taking testimony in December on a proposal to create a fish refuge in the Bristol Bay region that would encompass the Pebble deposit. Proponents of the refuge proposal asked the fisheries board to tell lawmakers that the region's fisheries deserve more protection than currently exists.

Though the board declined to recommend the creation of a refuge, the sponsors of the proposal said they were pleased with the letter. The sponsors include several businessmen involved in Bristol Bay's sport and commercial fisheries and Native community leaders.

"They not only took the time to listen, they really heard what we were saying," said Tom Tilden, a Dillingham tribal leader and co-sponsor.

"We're happy that the fish and those who depend on them finally won today," said Brian Kraft, another co-sponsor. He owns two Bristol Bay sportfishing lodges.

The Pebble Partnership, the consortium of mining companies attempting to develop Pebble, thinks it is reasonable for the board to request legislators to review the permitting process for educational purposes, said Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole.

He said anti-Pebble ads that ran in Alaska last year may have created "perceptions that there are no regulations that we have to follow."

He declined to say whether the Pebble Partnership would support any changes to the state's permitting process. "That's too hypothetical at this juncture," he said.

The fisheries board finished its letter after a series of phone conversations in recent weeks, said board executive director Jim Marcotte.

The board's staff sent the letter to Senate President Gary Stevens and House Speaker Mike Chenault this week. The two lawmakers did not respond to calls for comment.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.


By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK
ebluemink@adn.com