Committee holds first meeting on bill to protect Bristol Bay
As the new administration indicates a willingness to consider a major mine in Bristol Bay, and backers acquire new funding sources, Alaska residents are increasing the effort to get the state government to prevent such a project.
A major gold and copper mine proposed for an area near the headwaters of Lake Iliamna and the Nushagak watershed has long been contentious. And while past Environmental Protection Agency actions indicated a federal willingness to protect the area, the new administration has indicated that it may be more supportive of resource development, leading to new investors in the effort.
But as the House Fisheries Committee considers a bill that could beef up state protections for Bristol Bay, Alaskans have urged legislators to take matters into their own hands and expand the state's vetting process.
The committee heard Rep. Andy Josephson's House Bill 14 during about an hour-long hearing Jan. 31. That bill, which is identical to one Josephson proposed last year, changes the protections for the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve to make it more difficult to built a large mine, like the proposed Pebble Project. During his introduction, Josephson spoke to the federal changes that make the bill more timely.
"It's commonly understood that if this mine is going to be advanced with tough environmental standards, it's going to be up to the State of Alaska and those people who live in the Bristol Bay Borough, to be vigilant about those standards," Josephson said. "We're not going ... to get the protection the previous administration wanted to afford to tribes and the Bristol Bay watershed."
In both written and oral testimony, Alaskans supported the bill.
In a letter, Luki Akelkok wrote that the Ekwok Village Council supported the bill, and asked the committee to move forward with it. Ekwok wasn't alone. Letters of support were also submitted by the Bristol Bay Fishermen's Association, commercial and sport fishermen, fishing guides and lodges, and others.
Trout Unlimited's Nellie Williams spoke up in support of the bill, and others were signed up to testify in support of it, but not able to speak before time ran out. Bristol Bay residents hoping to testify at the Dillingham Legislative Information Office weren't called upon before time ran out, but were told that there would be another chance to speak at a future hearing. The committee had to adjourn for another House committee meeting.
The committee also heard some opposition to the bill from the Pebble Limited Partnership itself, Alaska Miners Association, and even a commercial fisherman.
Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Crockett raised concerns about the legality of requiring the legislature to approve such a project, and also questioned if the legislature had the time or technical expertise to review a mining permit.
Commercial fisherman Abe Williams also spoke in opposition to the bill, citing concerns about adding bureaucracy in the state, and said he believed the region needed the project economically.
The legislature already has to sign-off on such a mine under Alaska law. In his bill, Josephson proposes requiring certain state department commissioners to review the project as well. They would have to affirm that it would not have a negative impact on fisheries before the legislature could approve state level permitting.
That adds another layer to the current process, and departments noted that it would come at a cost. But during the Jan. 31 hearing, Josephson said he thought the effort was worth it.
"This is the most important environmental decision and fisheries decision in Alaska history, in my opinion," he said.
The bill also defines permit more closely than the previous statute that required legislative approval of the mine's permits. Josephson said that definition may still need adjustment, because the intent is to scrutinize future work, but not to make it difficult to do reclamation.
This is the same bill Josephson proposed previously, which was heard in the House fisheries committee, and referred onward, but didn't go any farther. This time around, Josephson is hoping to see it go further with the new majority coalition, and more committees chaired by supporters of the effort.
Josephson said before the session's start that he'll also look at other protections for the region in the months to come.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.