The fight over the proposed Pebble mine came to the Egan Center on Tuesday at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's public hearing before a crowd of hundreds, some holding salmon cutouts or wearing anti-Pebble stickers and others with red stop signs saying "Hands off Alaska."
People on both sides of the conflict testified about their love of salmon and how they cherish the thriving Bristol Bay runs.
But those who oppose the project say a big mine presents too great a threat. Several pointed to the Aug. 4 disaster in British Columbia when a tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine partially failed, sending contaminated slurry into a lake and prompting the regional government to declare a state of emergency.
Others said EPA's actions are misguided or worse and that the mine developers should be given a chance to move through the permitting process.
About 120 people signed up to speak in strict two-minute allotments. An informal tally found that sentiments ran about 2-to-1 in favor of the EPA proposal and against Pebble.
Among those who testified Tuesday about the EPA proposal, issued July 18, were Tom Collier, chief executive of mine developer Pebble Ltd. Partnership.
"I must tell you that I think it's ludicrous that we're having a public hearing 17 business days after you released a 200-page technical report," Collier said. "I think this hearing is much more about show than it is about substance."
The EPA review of whether to impose strict restrictions through the Clean Water Act on Pebble could take a year, and the project is stalled until then. Pebble and the state of Alaska already have sued EPA over its review.
"We think this is a denial of the due process," Collier said. "This has never been done before in the history of the Clean Water Act."
EPA officials dispute that, giving two examples of regulatory actions that preemptively halted development in wetlands in Florida and Louisiana.
The mine developers say EPA really wants "proactive watershed planning." That would mean zoning the Bristol Bay watershed and preventing roads and other projects in parts of it, Collier said.
Dennis McLerran, EPA's Seattle-based regional administrator, said the agency is looking only at Pebble and its impacts and isn't proposing to restrict other Alaska mines or projects.
"This has been an incredibly open, transparent process," McLerran said. He said he was taking lots of notes from the testimony and that the proposal could be modified.
Pebble wants to build one of the world's largest open-pit copper and gold mines at the headwaters of salmon streams that produce the biggest wild sockeye runs in the world.
EPA says the proposed mega-mine can't be constructed without destruction of streams and wetlands unprecedented in Alaska and perhaps the nation.
The agency proposes caps on how much habitat could be lost. For instance, EPA seeks to bar mine work within the Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds that would destroy more than five miles of salmon streams or fill in more than 1,100 acres of wetlands.
Tribal leaders and religious leaders, fishermen and environmentalists all spoke up in support of EPA.
MaryAnn Johnson, who grew up near Naknek in Portage Creek on Bristol Bay, said village residents need EPA because they can't depend on the state to look out for them.
She said she used to have a job in the region but still had to choose between spending money on fuel for heat or food for the kids.
"It was the land and the environment that provided our next meal," Johnson said.
Legislators spoke up too, with Democratic Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage and Sen. Hollis French of Anchorage all speaking in support of EPA action.
Josephson, a lawyer, testified about a series of court cases in which the state was found to have ignored or bypassed rules to allow development.
"The state hopes the mine can be built," Josephson said. "That translates into action. This is a politically driven process. That's why we need your help."
But Republican Sen. Cathy Giessel of Anchorage and Rep. Pete Higgins of Fairbanks said Pebble needs to be given a chance.
"I'm just a working stiff like everybody else around here. I'm not a lawyer," said Higgins, who is a dentist. "This is not about tribes. This is not about Pebble mine. This is about government overreach."
He called for Alaskans to decide what to do, "not the government."
"There's a firestorm that's beginning, that is going to encompass this entire nation over federalization. And we are going to be at the forefront of that firestorm. And we are going to fight you every inch of the way."
Deantha Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, told EPA that she fields calls regularly from potential financiers wondering whether it's safe to invest in mining here.
"And I don't know what to say to them," she said.
Her organization has repeatedly urged EPA to allow Pebble to move through permitting.
"I am discouraged and can only expect that our pleas for science and law will again be ignored."
But Sharon and Everett Thompson of Naknek urged EPA to stay tough.
Everett Thompson, a commercial fisherman and Bristol Bay Native Corp. shareholder, said he has fished 31 consecutive seasons starting from when he was 7.
"I believe it to be arrogant to say fishing and mining can coexist," he said.
Bishop David Mahaffey of the Orthodox Dioceses of Sitka and Alaska said Native people lived "off the land and with the land in a balanced harmony that remained undisturbed for centuries."
But now, he said, there's "a rush to grab the world's riches for ourselves." There's "the potential to eliminate an entire nation of people, a cultural genocide —"
As he spoke, the two-minute timer went off. The moderator told him to submit the rest of his comments in writing.
EPA is holding six more hearings this week, all in the Bristol Bay region.
People can submit written comments through Sept. 19.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing