Fishermen, chefs, Cantwell tell Obama: Kill Bristol Bay mine

By:  Seattle PI – Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle PI

Two forceful letters, one from Sen. Maria Cantwell and the other from 260 well-known chefs, are headed for the White House with a message for President Obama:  Kill the proposed Pebble Mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

They are asking Obama to use the government’s authority, under the Clean Water Act, to block a project that would impact a fishery worth half-a-billion dollars each year that directly supports 14,000 jobs.

Cantwell, restaurateur Tom Douglas and a crowd of about 200 fisheries folk staged an anti-Pebble Mine rally at Fisherman’s Terminal on Thursday.

Many Seattle-based fishing boats go north to Bristol Bay each summer. Nearly 1,000 Washingtonians hold commercial fishing permits in Bristol Bay.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessment, released Monday, found that between 24 and 94 miles of salmon-producing streams would be damaged or destroyed — if the huge open-pit mine operates safely.  Between 1,300 and 5,350 acres of wetlands would be impacted.

“Decisions on the future of this proposed mine should be made based on sound science,” Cantwell wrote Obama.  “Now, the science is in:  The proposed Pebble Mine would have devastating and irreversible impacts on Bristol Bay salmon and our maritime economy, which depends on them.”

The huge open-pit copper and gold mine would be located close to headwaters of the Nuchagak and Kvichak Rivers, two of Bristol Bay’s supreme salmon-spawning streams.

Bristol Bay produces an estimated 46 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon catch.  From 2000 to 2009, an average 37.5 million salmon returned to its rivers, with an average annual catch of 25.7 million.

Brett Hughes, first speaker at the Fisherman’s Terminal rally, began:  “I am a Bristol Bay salmon fisherman and my job depends on salmon returning to Bristol Bay.”

The idea that a giant mine can coexist with the world’s greatest salmon fishery, which depends on pure water, is “wild fantasy. I am being generous in describing it as fantasy,” said Daniel Schindler, associate professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences at the University of Washington.

Tom Douglas, taking the lead on the restaurateurs’ petition, ought to catch Obama’s eye.

Douglas hosted the then-Illinois senator in 2006 at a Palace Kitchen fundraiser, and sent Obama off with a bottle of Woodward Canyon cabernet sauvignon — one of Washington’s premier wines — and a coconut cream pie.  Obama was apparently wowed by the wine.

The EPA assessment has galvanized opposition to the Pebble project.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, a longtime advocate of the mining industry, has described it as the “wrong mine in the wrong place.”  A similar opinion came six years ago from the man he upset in 2008, longtime Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

The Bristol Bay Regional Corp., a powerful Native group, has declared its opposition.  So has former Gov. Tony Knowles, as well as Bella Hammond, widow of former Republican Gov. Jay Hammond.

The mine proposal is being developed by the Pebble Partnership.  It is owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., a Canadian company.  The giant, British-based Anglo-American mining company pulled out of the Pebble Partnership last year.

“We are disappointed that Senator Begich has come out against thousands of new jobs, hundreds of millions in state revenue and potentially billions in economic activity for Alaska,” Pebble Partnership said in a statement this week.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who has never met a mine he didn’t like, has charged that the EPA is pre-empting Alaska’s sovereignty and that the federal agency is “not listening to Alaskans.”

But Begich said he has become convinced the mine “cannot be developed safely.”  The Bristol Bay fishery is already a big economic presence in the 49th state.

Cantwell outlined her concerns to Obama:

“The mine site would require the construction of a huge earthen dam, with some mining scenarios requiring that dam to be the world’s largest.  This dam would be used to contain toxic waste, including arsenic and copper.

“”Soil properties in the region indicate that toxic tailings would leach into the groundwater creating even more impacts to the Bristol Bay ecosystem.  Leaching of these chemicals is considered unavoidable and therefore the the mine would require extensive water treatment in perpetuity which could cost exorbitant taxpayer dollars.”

What would happen, she added, if an earthquake were to breach the dam and release mine tailings that would impact Bristol Bay “for thousands of years?”

The senator, the chefs and the fisheries interests are asking the Obama administration to file a notice of the “proposed determination” in the Federal Register under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, to prohibit or restrict development of the Pebble Mine.

The law gives EPA authority to act if science determines that a project would “have unacceptable adverse impacts on water quality and the fish stocks that depend on it.”

Ronald Reagan invoked Section 404(c) in protecting the Everglades.

Alaska’s fisheries are “the envy of the world,” Tom Sunderland of Seattle-based Ocean Beauty Seafoods told Thursday’s rally.  “It’s not just about the fish.  It’s about the fish and the people who depend on the fish.”