Fearful that the Environmental Protection Agency will make a deal with the Pebble mine developer and back down from efforts to protect Bristol Bay, business leaders and others from the region vowed Thursday they will do whatever it takes to stop development, including lying in front of bulldozers.
"To be very blunt, over my dead body," said Norm Van Vactor, CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., and an owner of Ocean Beauty Seafoods, one of the largest seafood companies in the United States.
The EPA and the Pebble Partnership are expected to resolve a standoff that began in 2014 when U.S. District Judge Russel Holland stopped the EPA from taking action that could halt development at the prospect. The mine would straddle salmon-producing headwaters of the giant Bristol Bay salmon fishery.
In July 2014, the EPA under President Barack Obama issued a proposed determination saying even a much smaller mine than Pebble had proposed would damage one of the world's richest fisheries at Bristol Bay.
On Thursday, nine officials from the region, including Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, participated in a news teleconference in Dillingham as a show of unity against the gold and copper prospect.
They said they expect a a settlement of the lawsuit will be unveiled that will weaken EPA's position against the mine project now that it has a new administrator appointed by President Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, an outspoken opponent of the agency's past efforts to restrict development.
Speakers at the event blasted Pruitt for what they said were "backroom" negotiations with a foreign company owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals, of Canada. They said Pruitt is betraying a region that strongly opposes the mine, and had originally sought out the EPA, concerned the mine's development would devastate fish runs.
The EPA and Pebble last week requested an extension of settlement talks until Thursday, saying they were close to resolving the case. The two parties began negotiating in January when Judge Holland put the case on hold.
Pebble officials have indicated in recent weeks the company plans to pursue a smaller project. They have solicited local residents and others, including opponents, to serve on an advisory panel the company is organizing as it pushes ahead with development plans.
Edgmon said polls and meetings have consistently shown more than 80 percent of the people in the region don't want the mine to be developed.
He said he is "keenly disappointed" to hear EPA is considering backing away from its painstaking, multiyear analysis that assessed the mine's threat to the region before the agency issued the proposed determination.
"The people of the Bristol Bay region don't need this kind of stress hanging over our heads once again and continuing on year after year," said Edgmon.
Among the groups at the news conference were several that have fought vigorously against the project for years, including the Bristol Bay Native Corp., a regional Alaska Native corporation and the region's largest private landowner, and organizations representing most of the region's tribes and village corporations.
Bristol Bay Native Association, a tribal consortium of 31 tribes providing social services, was also there.
Speakers said they fear that if the mine is allowed to go through the standard permitting process at the state and federal level, rather than being restricted upfront as the EPA had originally proposed, the region's salmon-dependent economy and culture will be devastated.
They said they'd do whatever it takes to stop a mine, including taking to the streets and blocking development with their bodies, a form of civil disobedience that generated applause at the press conference.
"There is no deal Pebble could strike with the EPA that wouldn't hurt the region," said Alannah Hurley, with United Tribes of Bristol Bay.
Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole said Pebble was planning to announce "significant development."
"We have strong relationships with a wide range of constituents who know us, our work and we look forward to continuing that," Heatwole said in a prepared statement. "Pebble will be intensely reviewed via the transparent and objective permitting process to ensure it meets the high environmental standards Alaskans have for development."