LONGVIEW, Wash. — Lower Columbia River gillnetters say the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw protections from Bristol Bay could pave the path for a giant gold and copper mine in southwest Alaska that would threaten their source of sockeye salmon — and their chief livelihood as fishermen.
Members of the fishing industry said the move is indicative of the president’s “pro-business, anti-environment” agenda, one they say is shared by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“I think it’s a general policy push in the Trump (administration). You look at their track record: They’ve lightened up environmental standards. ... Some of it is not bad, but this is particularly bad,” said Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries in Astoria and Kenai, Alaska. The decision highlights how Dunleavy “appears to have special interests that are directly affecting the largest, most productive salmon population in the world.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in July withdrew a 2014 Obama-era proposal to restrict mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. The proposal would have prevented the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from issuing permits for the so-called Pebble Mine. The decision came shortly after the Army Corps closed a public comment period for a draft environmental impact statement for the project, and just one day after Gov. Dunleavy met with President Donald Trump, according to CNN reports.
Pebble Limited Partnership, the Alaska-based company proposing the mine, celebrated the EPA’s decision, noting that it removed a “preemptive veto” that would have blocked their project.
“Finally, this administration has reversed the outrageous federal government overreach inflicted on the state of Alaska by the Obama administration,” said PLP CEO Tom Collier. “The preemptive veto was an action by an administration that sought to vastly expand EPA’s authority to regulate land use on state, private and native-owned lands throughout the United States, and in doing so kill one of America’s most important mineral projects before a development plan was proposed or a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) permitting review was undertaken.”
The EPA said in a July news release that its action does not approve Pebble’s permit application or determine a particular outcome in the Army Corps’ permitting process. It does, however, create an opportunity for the mine to acquire permits and start operations, should the Corps deem it OK.
According to the release, the EPA withdrew its 2014 decision because more specific information about the mining project was made available in recent years. For example, the decision was based on three hypothetical scenarios for the mine site, which all differed from the actual project proposal submitted to the Army Corps in 2017 for review.
There is also now a draft environmental impact statement, released by the Army Corps, and thousands of public comments on the project that weren’t available before, according to the EPA.
But fishermen, who have staunchly opposed the mine since PLP pitched it in 2012, worry that the EPA’s decision could advance a project with dramatic consequences for the most productive sockeye fishery in the world.
“The infrastructure that will go into that mine has to affect the surrounding areas. I haven’t seen anything or any science (showing that the mine) won’t affect the surrounding natural resources,” Fick said.
The Pebble Mine, an operation the EPA estimates will cover an area larger than Manhattan, would include an open pit mine site, a 270-megawatt power generating plant, a transportation corridor crossing Iliamna Lake, a new port and a 188-mile natural gas pipeline. It would be located north of 77-mile-long Iliamna Lake —Alaska’s largest lake — and the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, which feed Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay produces almost half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon. On average, about 37.5 million salmon return on the watershed each year.
Fishermen say the EPA’s decision to withdraw the Obama-era restriction likely was politically motivated.
Jim Wells, president of the Astoria-based Salmon for All gillnetters association, said the Trump administration has been “anti-environmental, pro-business,” and the governor of Alaska is facing pressure from advocacy groups outside of the fishing industry.
Fick expects continued court fights over the project, delaying any potential start date. However, if the chips fall in favor of the mine, Fick joked that commercial fishermen might try blocking access on the river to the construction site to stop the mining company from bringing in equipment.
“There is a very strong basis for opposition to this mine,” Fick said. “It’s irresponsible the way they’re trying to push it through.”