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New group targets Pebble in ads, and EPA in its quest to restrict mining

Lisa Demer

Its biggest investor is gone and its staff and contractors have been cut to the bone, but the Pebble copper and gold prospect is drawing fresh heat from a newly formed organization made up of old adversaries of the mine project.

The new group is Bristol Bay United, formed by leaders of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., the sportfishing advocacy group Trout Unlimited, and a commercial fishing group called the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

On Wednesday, it began a media blitz of television ads that stress the importance of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon to residents and that aim to coalesce public opinion against Pebble. The advertisements feature a commercial fisherman, a lodge owner, and an Alaska Native woman with the message that thousands of fishing-related jobs could be lost if the mine were built and leaked waste. The words "Pebble Mine: Not Worth the Risk" flash at the ad's end.

The Pebble prospect includes the headwaters of two rivers that contribute to Bristol Bay's sockeye salmon runs, the biggest in the world.

Bristol Bay United's real target of persuasion, though, is the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has powers under the Clean Water Act that it could use to veto the project. That's what a group of Alaska tribal entities and village corporations petitioned the EPA to do back in 2010. The EPA didn't take that approach but launched an intensive study of a big mine's impact on the Bristol Bay watershed. A final version of the study is nearing completion.

The new group isn't seeking an outright veto. Instead Bristol Bay United wants the EPA to insist on strict restrictions put any mining projects in the area, the group's leaders said.

Specifically, it wants a ban on any dredged material being discharged into salmon habitat. It wants any mine project to follow state water quality standards and ensure that any discharged material isn't toxic to aquatic life. And it doesn't want any project runoff or seepage of fill to require "treatment in perpetuity."

"It's the restrictive part that we are really focused on," said Jason Metrokin, chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

The conditions they are seeking are so strict, the Pebble prospect couldn't be developed under current technology, said Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay seafood association, which represents driftnet fisherman.

But the restrictions "will not necessarily condemn it forever," Waldrop said. "We can't speak for five centuries down the road. Maybe it's possible."

The effort may ultimately cost millions, said Bristol Bay United executive director Shoren Brown. Each of the three groups is contributing money, as are individuals. However, Bob Gillam, a wealthy Anchorage businessman and fierce Pebble opponent, is not a donor, the group leaders said.

Pebble Limited Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said the developer's top priority is to protect fish and water, and it expects to meet strict standards. Pebble is regrouping after mining giant and key investor Anglo American pulled out of the project and hasn't determined when it will seek its development permits, include a dredge and fill permit from the Corps of Engineers, which the EPA will review.

As to whether the mine could be developed under the conditions being sought, that won't be clear until Pebble submits its mine plan, Heatwole said. He called the organization "old faces, new group."

"If we have a process that lives up to the very high environmental standards that the U.S. has set, both in clean air and clean water and everything in between, why are they afraid of letting us go into the process?" Heatwole said.

The EPA says it is completing its scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed and hasn't begun any action to block or restrict a mine permit.

It has received more than 1.1 million public comments on the study. EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader said the agency doesn't discuss specific groups or their efforts but continues "to welcome public engagement in this project."

Tim Bristol, Alaska director of Trout Unlimited, said the formal union of such diverse advocacy groups may be a first for conservation efforts in Alaska.

"I've never seen anything like it" in 20 years, he said.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

 


By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com
Contact Lisa Demer at LDemer@adn.com or on