A POLITICAL battle being waged in southwest Alaska is pitting national environmental lobbyists, and commercial fisheries against isolated Alaskan communities such as ours that need year-round, well-paying jobs. The fight is over the Pebble Deposit, one of the largest copper, molybdenum and gold discoveries in North America.
As a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a resident of Naknek, I am tired of people from far away playing politics with our livelihood. With all due respect, I wish to be afforded the same courtesy with Alaskan issues that could play a determining factor in the survival of my culture and community.
As a fortunate man, I have a good education, a good job and I’ve been able to make a living in the region my family has called home for generations.
Times are difficult, however, as we struggle with the cost of living in this region, where gasoline is $6 to $10 per gallon and milk is as much as $9 per gallon. In fact, costs are so high that many of my neighbors have sold their commercial fishing permits, often to residents of Washington state, just to pay the bills and look for opportunity elsewhere.
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The fishing industry, as well as tourism, are important to Alaska, but presently there are real economic challenges when jobs are available only for a few short months each summer and there’s nearly no opportunity to make money during the long Alaskan winter — a factor few understand or appreciate.
So more and more families are leaving the communities of southwest Alaska in search of steady work, schools are closing, and villages are slowly dying.
The Pebble mine may give us a chance to turn the tide by creating thousands of jobs and providing families with much more reliable year-round incomes. Like those of Bristol Bay and the other citizens of my state, I will not support a mine that damages a fishery. But I am willing to let the Pebble Partnership make its case. If the developers can prove the mine will safely coexist with Bristol Bay’s salmon, they should be allowed to proceed.
That won’t be easy. The permitting process runs several years and involves rigorous reviews from about a dozen different state and federal agencies.
Other large mines in Alaska have proved they can be developed and operated without harming fish populations. But until the Pebble Partnership applies for its permits and the regulators get a chance to review a detailed mining plan, I am keeping an open mind about the project.
Ideologically motivated activist groups are pressuring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pre-emptively veto the Pebble mine. No permit applications, no detailed regulatory review based on science — just an arbitrary order from EPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The EPA has never done this before and it certainly defies common sense and due process to try and prevent something before having actual facts to evaluate.
Washington state and Alaska have always had close economic ties. Those ties could be potentially stronger if the Pebble mine proceeds, because it will require billions of dollars of equipment and supplies that could flow through Washington ports.
At the same time, many Washingtonians have questions about the proposed Pebble mine.
So do I.
But I want factual answers to those questions, not an ideological knee-jerk reaction against a project that could bring the communities of Southwest Alaska the long-overdue jobs and infrastructure we need to build sustainable communities.
Commercial fisherman Abe Williams is a resident of Naknek, Alaska, and executive director of Nuna Resources, which supports sustainable economies in Bristol Bay.