DILLINGHAM -- President Barack Obama's top environmental official was visibly moved as people in this fishing town told her the giant Pebble mine would kill wild salmon and destroy their culture.
"You remind why we're all here, what we work for every day and why I am probably the most blessed person in the world to be at EPA at this time," said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.
"I intend to make you proud in the position the president has given me," she said to a standing ovation in the packed gymnasium at a Dillingham school on Tuesday.
McCarthy, confirmed to lead the EPA just last month, visited the Bristol Bay region this week as a nationwide debate grows over the proposed mine. It could be the largest open pit mine in North America and is in a region that produces half the world's wild sockeye salmon.
The proposed gold and copper mine pits people anxious for new jobs against those who say it will destroy streams, wetlands and salmon populations. Mine opponents in Dillingham were exalting at what they saw as McCarthy's sympathy.
"It was like a shot to the heart when she said 'I'm going to make you proud,' " said Robyn Chaney of Dillingham. "It gives you a glimmer of hope."
The EPA is considering using the Clean Water Act to block the Pebble mine even before it applies for permits.
Chaney's 14-year-old son, Triston, told the EPA leader that streams in the region are clean enough to drink from.
"The first thing I ever drank as a baby was from a stream and I want future generations to be able to," he said. "Please use your authority to stop the Pebble Mine."
The area of the mine is a massive green expanse bursting with lakes and streams, a sweeping land of moose, caribou and brown bears surrounded by mountains.
A tiny camp, just a dot in the huge expanse of Alaskan wilderness, is the only evidence of what could become one of the world's biggest mining operations.
The Pebble Partnership says the region's deposit is one of the largest of its kind on the planet, with potential to produce 80.6 billion pounds of copper and 107.4 million ounces of gold over three decades.
It is near the village of Iliamna, a cluster of about 100 people around a huge and spectacular lake. The community is quiet even in the summer. There's little activity except Pebble Partnership going to work on testing core samples and studying the sensitive area they hope represents a massive financial windfall.
The Pebble workers came to meet McCarthy in Iliamna wearing their safety vests emblazoned with the slogan "Zero harm." They said the mine developers are hiring people from Iliamna and the surrounding Alaska Native villages for work ranging from helping out in the kitchen to guarding workers from bears.
"There are no other job opportunities, absolutely none," said Janessa Woods, who has two children. "If Pebble weren't here I'd probably be on welfare, probably be on food stamps, probably be on energy assistance."
Clyde Trefon said he was on welfare before working for Pebble.
"We just need to be able to have some sort of economy in the villages because we have all these young men falling through the cracks," said Mary Jane Nielsen, president and CEO of the Alaska Peninsula Corp.
Several people in Iliamna urged the EPA not to shut down the mine before the developers submit their plans. They said environmental politics shouldn't trump science.
But even in the area close to the mine, people are sharply divided.
"No amount of money or jobs can replace our way of life," Nondalton Tribal Council President William Evanoff told the EPA leader. "The threats are real."
In the Bristol Bay fishing town of Dillingham, everyone who spoke to McCarthy was against the mine. The town of about 2,300 lives and breathes salmon, with vivid murals on the weathered buildings celebrating salmon and urging their preservation.
People packed Dillingham's gym to meet McCarthy. They wore "Save Our Wild Salmon" T-shirts and put up a giant sign demanding clean water. An elderly couple waved anti-Pebble pennants.
"We are people of fish, we are people of salmon, that is what we depend on," said Curyung Tribal Chief Tom Tilden.
"We want this renewable resource to come back year after year after year so we can continue to be here. Your agency can provide us that opportunity," he said.
The EPA leader toured the mine site with Pebble officials after leaving Dillingham. Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively said afterward that he assured McCarthy the developers are "committed to building a mine that would create substantial economic activity while protecting the environment and the fishery."
An EPA study released in April said the mine could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands in the Bristol Bay region. The EPA said it's finalizing the study, which is based on preliminary mine plans submitted to government agencies.
McCarthy rushed out of her Iliamna meeting to catch a plane to Anchorage and refused to take questions. She said before leaving she's open minded about Pebble.
"EPA is going to make our decision based on what our legal authority is -- no overstretches -- and on what the science says and real data," McCarthy said.
Most of the people McCarthy heard from during her quick visit to Bristol Bay opposed the mine. But McCarthy said that's not going to be a defining factor.
"I am not here to count votes," she said. "I am here to listen."
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @seancockerham
By SEAN COCKERHAM