More than 200 businesses — including many in Washington state — are calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to suspend permitting for the controversial Pebble Mine project. The proposed mine would be located in the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, in Bristol Bay Alaska.
The group, Businesses for Bristol Bay, released a letter with the demand at a press conference in Seattle, held outside Chef Tom Douglas’ Seatown Market Diner. They were there to make a point: that interests affected by the Pebble Mine include everything from commercial and sport fishing and recreation companies to outfitters, seafood processors and restaurants.
“It’s one of the last wild salmon watersheds in left in the world. So that’s what’s at stake,” said Daniel Schindler, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. He says the pristine waters of Bristol Bay provided 58 percent of the world’s sockeye harvest last year.
But, speaking at the press conference, he warned the 50-year timeline in the draft environmental impact statement currently open for comments underestimates the risk of mining for heavy metals like copper and gold.
“The reality is, the wastes that are left behind on this site will need to be monitored, maintained, contained and treated forever,” Schindler said.
Just over a month is left for public comments on the current proposal. Plans for the mine have been pending for more than a decade. It was on hold in 2014, after the Obama administration Environmental Protection Agency found it would have adverse effects on salmon spawning areas. Backers of the current plan say it is scaled back and salmon friendly.
Opponents are asking for more time to comment and to have public meetings held in the Northwest. On Wednesday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is in Seattle this week, on requested a 30-day extension of the current comment period, until June 29, to ensure a thorough review.
“This is why we’re asking for such a robust and rigorous review," she said. "We need to know that it can be done safely. And if it can’t be done safely, it shouldn’t be done.”
Members of Businesses for Bristol Bay said 30 days is not enough for the hundreds of pages of technical analysis needed, but it would be a start.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell also has urged the Army Corps to extend the comment period. Speaking as the ranking Democrat in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last month, Cantwell said the current administration is looking to fast-track the permit process for an open pit mine in the headwaters of one of the most productive salmon runs in the world. She said she wants the corps to hold additional public meetings, outside Alaska.
“So that fishermen can have their voices heard,” Cantwell said. “Unfortunately, those calls have been unanswered as of yet, but I hope that we will get the administration to understand that it is not worth damaging future generations of salmon run to put an open pit gold mine there.”
Note: this story has been updated to correct the date to which Sen. Murkowski’s request would extend the comment period on the draft EIS (June 29, not June 1.) We regret the error.