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New EPA head gets earful of Pebble Mine chatter in Southwest Alaska meetings

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
At spirited meetings in Dillingham and Iliamna earlier this week, new EPA head Gina McCarthy heard plenty of feedback on her agency's role in the contentious Pebble Mine debate -- and what it might mean for the future of the Bristol Bay region. EPA photo

Three weeks into her position as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy said she had to come to Bristol Bay to hear what the people of the region had to say about possible resource development in their region, which has drawn scrutiny from the agency in recent years.

“I am new to this job,” McCarthy said. “I want to do a good job I want to be outside of Washington to understand what you think we should be doing, what your concerns are, and how we can translate that into, again, making the most respectful, credible scientific decision that we can make.”

The Bostonian got an earful.

A packed house of more than 100 people in Iliamna and double that in Dillingham communicated to McCarthy their diverse views on the proposed Pebble mine, a proposed development of copper, molybdenum and gold in the Bristol Bay watershed near Iliamna. Some spoke of the need for the federal agency to move forward with its watershed assessment of the Bristol Bay region, which concluded in its draft that a largescale mine would negatively impact the region’s valuable fishery even without any failures or environmental disasters. Others, however, shared their view that the jobs the Pebble prospect has already brought to the region have changed the lives of those in the region struggling with high unemployment rates. Many said they feared action by the federal government to limit mining in the region might not only stop the Pebble mine, but other development as well. 

“I have two children,” said Janessa Woods, a young woman wearing a Pebble vest. “This is how I provide for my children. There aren’t very many people working where I live. If I weren’t here, I’d probably be on welfare, and I don’t want that. I want to be able to work for my family.”

Others spoke about how the jobs changed their lives.

“I’m thankful for the clean water and the fish,” said Clyde Trefon of Nondalton. “But we do need jobs.”

Trefon told McCarthy that his job with Pebble encouraged him to get sober and has kept him and others off welfare.

The EPA has been criticized by some for starting its unprecedented Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment prior to Pebble Mine submitting any permits with federal or state agencies. Some have called the action premature, including the state of Alaska. But the EPA has defended its action, saying it is studying the issue, not taking regulatory action, at this point. 

That’s not enough for many, however, including some of the entities who encouraged the federal government to get involved in the first place.

The Bristol Bay Native Corporation said it has polled its shareholders and found that some 80 percent oppose the mine, though they don’t oppose resource development in general. The corporation and others have urged the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to stop the mine.

“What we are hearing from our 9,300 shareholders, many of whom are in this room today, is that the risks are too great,” said Jason Metrokin, president and CEO of the corporation. “Everyone here would agree that science should rule the day.”

The corporation was criticized during the meeting, however, saying it shouldn’t speak for those communities that see the need for jobs for their people. Metrokin said after the meeting that no one is denying the need for jobs in the Bristol Bay region, but said there are other ways to encourage the economy that aren’t as dangerous to the environment.

“This is not the only option,” he said.

Mary Kay Nielsen told McCarthy that the school in her community closed, along with many other schools, and the fish processors have shut down, too. She has to go to Anchorage to work, she said, and families have moved away.

“In the summer, you don’t hear any children,” she said. “We just need to be able to have some sort of economy in the villages.”

Several elders at the Iliamna meeting said they were concerned by the divide they were seeing among their people as a result of this debate.

“We are one people,” said one elder. “We are people of one mind and one voice.”

Many in the meeting thanked McCarthy for coming to Iliamna so early after taking her position. 

McCarthy, in turn, commended the speakers on their candor.

“Every one of you mentioned your need to preserve your way of life,” McCarthy said. “Every one of you mentioned your
interest in making sure that the natural resources were protected so they can continue to have the same subsistence living. No one is denying or interested in this group in denying opportunity to continue to live and even have a better life moving forward.And each and every one of you talked about your families, and your children and your grandchildren.”

The Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to release its report on the Bristol Bay Watershed this fall.

This article originally appeared in the Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.