As Alaskans we take great responsibility in balancing the management of our natural resources with the protection of our land and waters. Since statehood, Alaska's leaders have walked a fine line to determine how essential minerals can be extracted without sacrificing equally valuable fish and wildlife resources. In determining whether potential resource development would ensure healthy, sustainable economic growth for our state, former Governor Jay Hammond had four simple criteria a project should be evaluated by:
• Is it environmentally sound?
• Do most Alaskans want it?
• Can it pay its own way?
• Does it meet our constitution's mandate to manage resources for the maximum benefit of all Alaskans?
While many of Alaska's mining projects have met Hammond's basic standards, the proposed Pebble Mine has not. With a thriving commercial fishing industry and a vital subsistence way of life at stake, mineral development in Bristol Bay must be carefully scrutinized and permitted with only the highest of precautionary environmental standards.
Low-grade sulfide rock formations in the Bristol Bay watershed have attracted the interest of mining developers from around the world. They are now pursuing projects on a scale larger than anything the state of Alaska has ever seen, let alone permitted. Such projects may pose substantial long-term risks to the water quality and quantity and biological health of the Nushagak Mulchatna and Iliamna/Kvichak systems. Thus, we remain concerned that Bristol Bay cannot be adequately protected through Alaska's present day permitting system.
While project backers claim there is no set plan for the Pebble prospect, State documents tell us streams will be diverted, dewatered and impounded in the vicinity of the proposed mine site. There will also be massive disturbances of both the surface and subsurface water systems in the area, likely leading to significant changes in the movement of ground water into salmon streams. All of this will be occurring in the headwaters of major river systems that make up a large portion of Bristol Bay's salmon production. In addition, reaching Pebble's minerals will require the removal of billions of tons of waste rock and other material, some of which will create sulfuric acid when it is placed on the surface of the land and reacts with air and water. This waste would have to be safely contained forever.
The EPA is now poised to release a draft of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. Undertaken in response to countless requests made by Southwest Alaskans -- including tribal governments, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, commercial and sport fishermen, and other concerned stakeholders -- this scientific review is an antidote to the "wait and see" scenario. The agency's review of the Bristol Bay region provides state and federal decision-makers with science-based information on how to best protect the watershed and its world-class salmon fishery.
While Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty seem to have ignored the concerns of constituents and called the agency's involvement overreaching, we find their actions to be warranted and necessary. With thousands of fishing jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue on the line, an independent assessment from EPA officials is absolutely the right thing at the right time.
With this in mind we support the EPA's decision to conduct a thorough review of the Bristol Bay watershed and fully support any future decision by the agency to invoke their authority under the Clean Water Act and protect the region from harmful mining development. After a thorough public and peer review process, it would be appropriate for the EPA to move forward with proactive and protective actions related to this sacred Alaska resource. Such a decision would provide certainty to industry seeking to develop and invest in Bristol Bay.
The facts, we believe, will call for it, and the people of Southwest Alaska are demanding it.
Robin Samuelsen is both a life-long resident of Southwest Alaska and commercial fisherman who has held many leadership positions in the Bristol Bay region. Republican Gary Stevens is president of the Alaska Senate, where has served since 2003.
By Robin Samuelsen and Sen. Gary Stevens