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Protecting Alaska's renewable natural resources isn't optional, it's mandatory

Everett Thompson
OPINION: Alaskans need to stand together and demand higher standards of protection for our salmon, not weaker ones. If we don't, we risk losing the renewable resources that define our great state. flickr / echoforsberg

As a lifelong Alaskan, I'm appalled by the continuous assault by our state elected officials upon our renewable natural resources. Over the past several years, I have experienced firsthand their work to cater to the Outside interests through the rewriting of laws and management plans at the expense of salmon and local Alaskans. A prime example was Parnell’s permit streamlining effort: HB 77, or as we like to call it, the "Silencing Alaskans Act." While Parnell attempted to push this bill through under the radar, it was vigorously opposed by Alaskans and thankfully shelved because of diverse, strong opposition. But generally, these efforts are body-guarded by the mining industry, and threatening salmon and the Alaska businesses and families that depend on them.

Despite their rhetoric, experience shows that we cannot trust our state leaders to protect salmon. Given its history, it seems like if the state had its way, and Alaskans weren’t paying attention, we wouldn’t be fighting the Pebble Mine; we’d already be mitigating its impacts. Over the past decade, Alaskan elected officials have sided with a foreign mining company, while ignoring its own citizens.

The examples are almost too many to count. In 2005, shortly after the value of the Pebble deposit was recognized, appointees from the mining industry flooded the Alaska Department of Natural Resources leadership. Under their watch they rewrote the Bristol Bay Area Plan, swapping 98 percent of land designated as habitat -- including the Pebble deposit -- to mining, opening up opportunity for Pebble.

In 2007, 2009, and again in 2011, commercial fishermen, sportsmen and Alaska Native groups proposed state legislation that would have put protections in place for Bristol Bay’s salmon. The Pebble Partnership met these citizen driven proposals with record lobby expenditures in Juneau.

From 1988 to 2006, the state required no water use permits from Pebble or its predecessors, clearly turning a blind eye to Pebble's possible impacts on Bristol Bay. Yet, we’re told Alaska has the most robust permitting system in the country.

In 2010, the state fined Pebble $45,000 for 45 water quality violations that occurred during exploration. Pebble did not self-report these violations. The violations came to light during a lawsuit filed by local residents regarding the issuance of temporary water use impacts.  Following this exposure, DNR admitted to not accurately checking on water use and permit requirements. "We weren't checking the exact locations," said Dick Mylius, director of the Division of Mining, Land and Water.

Most recently, in state courts, Judge Suddock sided with the state and the Pebble Partnership in the Save Our Salmon Initiative, which could have stopped Pebble Mine.  He ruled that the state -- not local governments -- had the sole power to regulate “all matters affecting the mineral resources of the state” and that the local initiative undercut the state’s regulatory authority to permit mines such as Pebble.

The DNR admits that its mission is to permit mines, even when peer-reviewed science demonstrates that some mines, like Pebble are too risky and should not be permitted.  In 2012 the DNR Deputy Commissioner told Frontline,  “If the company can meet all the standards in their design, then we may have no choice but to permit it.” Alaska’s permitting system is already set up to approve mines and their track record demonstrates that.  Parnell's recent effort to further streamline the process is another blatant attempt to pave the way for Pebble and other risky development.

Amid all of this, Governor Parnell screams at the federal government for supposed overreach. Yet, the federal government is only doing what we Alaskans and Bristol Bay residents have asked the state do: Review Pebble and protect Bristol Bay, as the Clean Water Act is designed to do.

Our communities and businesses in Bristol Bay have long been opposed to Pebble. Our opposition has been evident in polling, in propositions pushed through the Board of Fish, and most recently the requests from Bristol Bay tribes to EPA that they use their authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay. Support is further borne out through the overwhelmingly positive public response to the EPA’s Watershed Assessment.

Now, Sen. Lisa Murkowski is co-sponsoring the Regulatory Fairness Act. If passed, it would strip EPA's authority to use Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, even if dredge and fill material will have an "unacceptable adverse effect" on the surrounding water. It is shocking that Sen. Murkowski would take such a stand.

We need to stand together and demand higher standards of protection for our salmon, not weaker ones. If we don't, the renewable resources that define our great state will be exchanged for quick and temporary revenue for the state.

We have an opportunity to protect the last and greatest wild salmon fishery, a sustainable economy, a subsistence lifestyle, clean water and a healthy future for our families. I wish the state of Alaska would be a partner, rather than an adversary, in this effort.

Everett Thompson is a lifelong commercial fisherman from Bristol Bay. He lives in Naknek with his wife and two children.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.