In Alaska’s Bristol Bay, North America’s biggest wild salmon harvest is in full swing, a bonanza of gill-netted sockeye that comes amid renewed concerns about a proposed open-pit mine that fishermen fear would imperil this resource.

“It’s impossible to push out of my mind. It’s the most important issue we face,” said David Harsila, a Bristol Bay fisherman from Shoreline.

The Pebble Mine project would tap into a world-class deposit of gold, molybdenum, silver and copper within the remote Bristol Bay headwaters region, where salmon spawn and their offspring may linger for several years before heading out to sea. Pebble was first proposed more than a decade ago, and because of the sensitive location, has emerged as the most contested mine development in Alaska’s history.

Within the Trump administration, the mine’s federal review has been on somewhat of a roller coaster. The process appeared to stall last year when then-Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt found the mine would “likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources” of Bristol Bay. Now the agency is sending a different message — offering fresh hope to the developers and putting project opponents on high alert.

In a June 26 memorandum, the EPA’s general counsel called for the possible withdrawal of an Obama-era proposal that would seriously restrict the amount of stream miles and wetlands that could be lost from disposal of mine wastes.

“We are pleased,” said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble Mine Project who said the proposed restrictions represent a “serious deterrent” to investment. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is pushing forward with a permitting review scheduled to be completed by the middle of next year, which — once state-level permits are approved — could allow for mine development to start in the early 2020s.

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The Seattle regional office of the EPA came up with the Obama-era restrictions, which resulted from a study concluding that the mine — as initially proposed — “would jeopardize the long-term health and sustainability of the Bristol Bay ecosystem.” The Seattle EPA office remained critical of the Pebble project, releasing on July 1 a wide-ranging critique of an Army Corps of Engineers’ draft environmental review of a scaled-down mine proposal.

The Seattle agency staff noted the project would cause the loss of 3,560 acres of wetlands and could affect the genetic diversity of wild salmon in two major Bristol Bay watersheds. They concluded the Army Corps study likely underestimated the impacts on ground water, surface water, wetlands, aquatic resources and air quality. They thought there was a risk that a dam planned to hold back mine wastes could breach, and they recommended that the Army Corps, which had discounted that possibility, analyze the impacts of such a failure.

The Corps permit, if approved, would authorize 20 years of mine operations that would produce some 1.3 billion tons of ore from a 608-acre open-pit mine that would reach depths of nearly 2,000 feet. Any proposal to go beyond 20 years would trigger a new permitting process, and whenever the mine would close, water discharges from the pit would have to be treated in perpetuity, according to the EPA.

They have pitched the project as a major economic opportunity for Alaska, directly creating some 850 jobs. That has helped to build support among some state residents at a time when oil production that funds most of government is on the decline. The developers note that copper, in particular, is expected to be in high demand to help manufacture wind turbines and other renewable-energy technologies needed to reduce carbon emissions.

“We believe Pebble won’t harm the fishery … Alaskans know how to develop resources responsibly, and have done so for decades,” said Tom Collier, chief executive officer of the Pebble Partnership, in an open letter to Alaskans posted on the project’s website.

Passion and worry

The Pebble mine would operate in a spectacular part of southwest Alaska, where rivers unburdened by dams produce tens of millions of sockeye salmon for a harvest that typically peaks in early July.

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The harvests draws fishermen from all over Alaska and most other states, including Washington, where residents hold 766 permits to catch Bristol Bay fish with boats or nets strung from shore.

In an era when many salmon runs in the Lower 48 have long been in decline, the Bristol Bay harvest last year shattered all records. More than 62.3 million sockeye returned from ocean feeding grounds to the bay. Some 41.3 million fish were caught, worth $275.5 million to fishermen and hundreds of millions of more dollars once processed.

This year’s harvest has unfolded under unusually balmy conditions as Alaska is buffeted by a heat wave that this month pushed temperatures in Anchorage to a record of 90 degrees. But there has been another strong showing of Bristol Bay salmon, with the total run forecast to reach more than 40 million sockeye.

The 64-year old Harsila has been working the Bristol Bay sockeye harvest since he was 17, and his crew now includes his son, Scott Harsila, a mechanical engineer, who takes time from his office job in Washington each summer to work a few weeks on deck.

Harsila mixes his passion for Bristol Bay fishing with his opposition to the Pebble Mine Project. He is president of the Bristol Bay Fishermen’s Association, part of a broader opposition coalition that includes some Native groups, seafood companies, recreation companies environmentalists, outdoor-recreation companies and Seattle restaurant owner and chef Tom Douglas.

“Once you let them in the door, you are in trouble. It could lead to other companies coming in and mining at the expense of salmon,” Harsila said in a phone interview from Bristol Bay.

“Resume Considerations”

The Seattle EPA office is headed up by a man very familiar with the Bristol Bay salmon harvest and its importance to the southwest Alaska economy. His name is Chris Hladick, a Trump administration appointee who is serves the EPA’s Seattle-based regional administrator for a four-state area.

Hladick spent most of his career in Alaska, including posts as the state’s commissioner of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, and as city manager of Dillingham, a Bristol Bay community heavily dependent on the summer sockeye harvest.

Now he is charged with recommending to the EPA national office whether restrictions proposed during the Obama administration should be removed.

But the fate of the Pebble Mine Project likely will be determined in Washington, D.C., where Pebble Partnership since 2007 has spent more than $7.9 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies, according to Center for Responsive Politics.

In 2017, Pebble Mine appeared to be on a roll, when Pruitt — on the same day he met with the partnership’s Collier — called for the rollback of the Obama-era proposed restrictions, according to CNN. But in January 2018, Pruitt did an about-face, opting to leave in place the Obama-era findings.

Pruitt was succeeded by Andrew Wheeler, who has recused himself from the EPA review of Pebble because he had worked at a law firm that did work for the mining partnership. That left Matthew Leopold, EPA general counsel, responsible for any headquarters-level decision on Pebble.

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In mid-June, Leopold joined Hladick, on a swing through Alaska, where he met in Anchorage with backers of the mine, then flew to the Bristol Bay region for more talks.

“We thought we didn’t have anything to worry about,” recalled Norm Van Vactor, president of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, which opposes the project. “Their body language — and the conversation — left us feeling pretty good that they heard our concerns, and not much would be changing in the immediate future.”

But things did change.

Less than two weeks later, Leopold sent a memorandum to Hladick directing him to “resume considerations” on removing the Obama-era restrictions.

“By making a decision one way or the other, the (Seattle EPA) Region will provide much needed clarity … on this issue,” Leopold wrote.

Later this summer, Harsila will finish his harvest and return to Washington state, where he will be warily tracking what happens next.

Fishermen are concerned that if the Trump Administration greenlights the project, the mine then could quickly move through a state-level permitting review. That would unfold under the administration of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican whose Department of Environmental Quality commissioner — Jason Brune — was a strong supporter of the mine in a previous position: government affairs director for Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Pebble partner.