Alaskan Senator speaks out against Pebble; Murkowski blasts EPA study

January 22, 2014

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D, AK) became the first member of Alaska's current congressional delegation to speak out in opposition to the Pebble Project in Alaska’ Bristol Bay region.

His comments about the controversial mine came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final assessment on large scale mining in the area (ME, Jan. 15, 2014). 

The study, based on hypothetical mine plans and disputed by Pebble Project leader Northern Dynasty Minerals, found that large scale mining could adversely affect the Bristol Bay region's world-famous red salmon runs.

"Wrong mine, wrong place, too big," Begich said in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News. "Too many potential long-term impacts to a fishery that is pretty critical to that area but also to Alaska, to world markets."

The huge Pebble gold and copper deposit is at the headwaters of two rivers that together account for 25 percent of the world's sockeye salmon production. Bristol Bay overall produces half the world's red salmon.

Begich told the Anchorage Daily News that he had met repeatedly with players on both sides in an effort to understand whether a big mine could be built without damaging the fish.

The Pebble Partnership said it was disappointed Begich had come out against a mine that would generate significant jobs and revenue.

"We also are stunned that an Alaskan senator supports the EPA — a federal agency acting unilaterally — to make decisions about future development on state land in Alaska," The Pebble Partnership said in a statement. "Finally, it is no secret that there is a substantial difference of opinion regarding the science of EPA's recent Bristol Bay assessment. Not many Alaskans think EPA is impartial."

The EPA first announced in February 2011 that it was going to study the impacts of a big mine on the Bristol Bay watershed, rather than seek to block the mine outright as some tribes and Alaska Native groups wanted.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, (R-AK), initially welcomed the EPA review, and Begich said they were aligned. But within days, she warned against EPA "overreaching."

On Jan. 15, both Murkowski and Rep. Don Young (R-AK) blasted the EPA over its study, emphasizing the prospect of EPA vetoing the mine under the Clean Water Act before developers submit a plan or seek permits. EPA says it doesn't yet know what direction it will take. A number of environmental, fishing and Native groups want it to kill the mine.

"For the EPA to come into Alaska and lay the groundwork to preemptively oppose a project located entirely on state lands, and subject to rigorous state permitting, is a serious threat to not only Alaska's sovereignty, but the rights of states nationwide, regardless of the nature of the project subject to Clean Water Act permitting," Young said in a press release.

"EPA's assessment stops short of prohibiting responsible development in the Bristol Bay watershed, but the agency has strongly implied that this report will be a basis to preemptively veto economic opportunities in the region in the future," Murkowski said. "I remain convinced that a preemptive veto of a mine or any other project, which the agency claims it can do under the Clean Water Act, would set a terrible precedent for development in our state and across the nation."



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