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Murkowski denounces Pebble mine at AFN and says she will take additional steps to protect Bristol Bay

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on Thursday denounced the Pebble mine project and said that she will take further congressional action to protect the Bristol Bay region in Southwest Alaska.

“I recognize the need for new economic development in Southwest Alaska, I think we all do," she said in a speech before the Alaska Federation of Natives.

“But I simply think this is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” the senator said, echoing the words of the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

Murkowski, speaking by video during AFN’s annual convention, said she would introduce report language into the Senate Appropriations Committee next year to help protect the region where the mine is proposed for construction.

“But while we may have stopped Pebble today, I think now is the time to starting thinking about the future,” she said. “We need longer-term protections for the region that can also provide enduring values for Alaskans.”

Murkowski did not specify the steps she would take. A spokeswoman in her office declined to provide additional details.

Pebble has received a strong environmental review from the Army Corps of Engineers showing the project won’t harm the fishery in Bristol Bay, said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman with Pebble Limited, in a response sent by email.

“We don’t want to comment beyond that until we know exactly what the senator intends to do,” Heatwole said.

AFN, the state’s largest Native organization, is holding its annual convention virtually this year for the first time, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event, first held in 1966, ends Friday.

Though Murkowski said Pebble has been “stopped,” the project could still receive a permit for construction from the Army Corps of Engineers. If built, it would be about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

If the Corps issues a permit, that could lead to a multi-year review of the copper and gold project by Alaska regulators before the mine can be built.

Project developer Pebble Limited Partnership is completing a final report, due next month, that it hopes will satisfy the Corps. The final report will set the stage for a decision from the Corps to approve a permit or reject it.

Murkowski told AFN she has been “clear throughout” that she opposes the project.

While the senator has questioned the Corps' environmental review that began more than two years ago, she first issued a statement opposing the project receiving a permit on Aug. 24.

She was joined that day by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who also publicly expressed his opposition to the mine for the first time. He is facing challenger, Al Gross, a Democratic-nominated independent, and the mine is a central issue in the campaign.

The senators' attacks on Pebble continued after the release of videos last month that showed two project executives, including since-resigned Pebble Limited chief executive Tom Collier, asserting that Murkowski and Sullivan were only being political when they spoke against the mine in August.

The senators have denounced the statements as false.

Murkowski on Thursday said she would build on the Senate Appropriations Committee report language she introduced last year, which called on the Corps to address scientific shortcomings.

Nelli Williams, director of Trout Unlimited in Alaska, said she was pleased to hear Murkowski say Bristol Bay needs long-term protections. She said critics of Pebble, like her group, can’t stop until the project is completely dead.

“It’s great to see Alaskans across the political spectrum coming together to oppose a dumb idea so we can all look forward to a more prosperous future for Bristol Bay and the fishery and the recreational and tourism businesses out there,” she said.

Also on Aug. 24, the U.S. Army, the Corps' parent agency, said in a statement that the mine cannot be permitted as proposed. The Corps also said that week in August that “discharges at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources” in the Bristol Bay region, resulting “in significant degradation to those aquatic resources.”

But the Corps also allowed Pebble to submit its final plan, showing how the company would compensate for damage at the mine site. Pebble is hoping its current work updates the project to an acceptable level.

Pebble executives say the Corps' final environmental report, released in July, found the mine can safely coexist with the fishery. Conservation groups have said the report is flawed.

Sullivan is scheduled to provide his congressional address to AFN on Friday at 9:40 a.m., and will appear in a candidate’s “interview” that will also feature Gross at 2:10 p.m. on Friday.

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