Post should have taken a deeper look at EPA, Bristol Bay and Pebble

Post should have taken a deeper look at EPA, Bristol Bay and Pebble
Robert Heyano
February 17, 2015

OPINION: EPA was not out of line in its Bristol Bay assessment, nor in its response to Western Alaskans.

The story the Alaska Dispatch News reprinted, "Internal memos spur accusations of bias as EPA moves to block Pebble Mine," (Feb. 16) from the Washington Post’s recent story on the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region doesn’t just omit some key facts -- it fails to report the most relevant facts in telling the whole story.

For over a decade, Bristol Bay’s residents have battled Northern Dynasty to prevent hard rock metallic sulfide mines like Pebble from being developed -- not in their backyards, but in their front yards. The reason is simple: we must protect the most important renewable natural resource upon which we and almost everything else here depends -- wild salmon. 

Annual returns of wild salmon support an economic powerhouse which provides 14,000 sustainable jobs and an industry valued at $1.5 billion. Our salmon feeds the world, with 51 percent of global sockeye salmon coming from Bristol Bay. In addition to the commercial fishery, our Alaska Native cultures have sustained themselves for generations on the salmon that return each summer to spawn. Sport anglers from across the globe travel to Bristol Bay for a small piece of its bounty.

These facts add up to an indisputable truth: Bristol Bay is a unique and valuable treasure that cannot be put at risk. 

The Post’s article intimates that the battle over Pebble began with a tribal petition to EPA requesting that it use its authority under the Clean Water Act to prohibit mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. In doing so, the article misses the key reason the tribes submitted the petition in the first place.

Let’s rewind: in 2006, the Pebble Partnership floated its initial proposal. It called for a 1-mile-deep pit, a 100-mile road through the wilderness, and a tailings dam larger than China’s Three Gorges. With this megaproject on the table, a host of smaller mining companies laid out their own proposals to piggyback on Pebble’s infrastructure, turning our wild salmon wilderness into one of the world’s largest mining districts. 

Our first reaction to Pebble’s proposal was to contact our state government, but Pebble got there first and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources revised a 30-year-old zoning plan to reclassify Bristol Bay from a critical habitat area to an area suitable for mineral development. The state Legislature tabled every bill intended to increase protections for the area. Only after years of having doors closed on us did we petition the EPA, and only then did Pebble’s project finally get a hard look.

The result was a multiyear, twice peer-reviewed, scientific study of the geology, hydrology and biodiversity of the region: the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. EPA’s public process included every stakeholder group: Alaska Native tribes, commercial and sport fishers, lodge owners, state government representatives and the Pebble Partnership. The EPA held numerous meetings in the Bristol Bay region and heard directly from residents. Throughout the process, EPA never denied a meeting with stakeholders, including the Pebble Partnership.

Ironically, Pebble is now suing EPA, alleging that the very open door policy it used is illegal. But, documents submitted in the lawsuit tell a different story. From 2003-2013, the EPA staff held 30 one-on-one meetings with Northern Dynasty -- including three meetings with the EPA administrator. During EPA’s assessment, Northern Dynasty submitted 25,000 pages of technical data and EPA staff met with project representatives for four days to discuss the data. Later it submitted 1,700 pages of comments on EPA’s draft, while speaking in person at nearly all of EPA’s public hearings. In fact, Northern Dynasty’s access to EPA was unheard of. 

Today the Pebble project is on the ropes. An unprecedented coalition of Alaska Native tribes, commercial fishermen, sport fishing businesses and enthusiasts, and conservation groups are working together to protect the world-class treasure that is the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Major financial backers have abandoned the project. As a result, Pebble recently turned to an offshore hedge fund for an infusion of capital. Despite Pebble spending millions at the ballot box, the people of Alaska just voted overwhelmingly in favor of more regulation of large-scale mining in Bristol Bay. 

Pebble desperation has now inspired a smear campaign against EPA and anyone who supports EPA’s proposed protections for Bristol Bay. But last summer’s collapse of the tailings impoundment at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia only confirmed our worst fears: despite the best technology, the best science and the best of intentions, large-scale metallic sulfide mining is imperfect. The Pebble Partnership cannot guarantee the safety for our fishery, and thus cannot ensure the continuation of our way of life. 

Here in Bristol Bay we cannot afford this mistake -- not when our very survival, our culture and our livelihoods are on the line. I hope The Washington Post will look at all points of view the next time it decides to cover the Bristol Bay beat.

Robert Heyano is president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay and represents 13 Bristol Bay tribes working to protect their traditional way of life and oppose large-scale mines like Pebble in the Bristol Bay watershed.

See full story here.