It was standing room only at the federal building in Seattle, where the Environmental Protection Agency held its first hearing Thursday on Alaska’s Bristol Bay fishery.
At issue is the potential effects of a proposed gold and copper mine there. The assessment looks at mining in general, though concern has arisen over a huge project known as the Pebble Mine.
The Seattle hearing took place at the request of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who says she heard from thousands of concerned constituents in Washington.
Among them is Ben Blakey, who runs a gill netter out of Seattle. He’s worried that the Pebble Mine would destroy the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world – and the livelihood the nearly a thousand commercial fishermen like him.
“There's over 900 permit holders that live here in Washington. And that’s close to half of the total permit holders in all of Bristol Bay," Blakey said. "And so it’s a huge economic engine, not just for the people in Alaska, but for here in Washington.”
Also testifying in the packed hearing were sports fishermen, environmental groups and native Alaskans – all supporting the EPA’s draft assessment, which warns of potential pollution from mining that could harm fish.
Representatives of the mining companies were also there. They say it’s premature for the EPA to make the assessment because they have not yet submitted a final proposal for permitting. Sean Magee is with Northern Dynasty Minerals, a 50% owner of the Pebble Project.
"There is a federal and state permitting process in the United States to assess projects like Pebble. We think that's the appropriate venue for this project to be judged," Magee said. "This report has been rushed and unfortunately, it's not making a positive contribution to the public debate around pebble."
The company’s stock price has plummeted since the EPA issued its assessment. Supporters of the project say it would bring badly needed, high-paying jobs to the remote area of Alaska.
But the EPA says nine federally-recognized tribes asked for the study. Native Alaskans say their way of life is at stake. The EPA says it has the authority and the responsibility to investigate under the Clean Water Act.