About 30 people gathered in front of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s Soldotna office Wednesday to oppose the proposed Pebble Mine project.
Georgie Heaverley is a second-generation Cook Inlet commercial fisherman and a community organizer for Cook Inletkeeper. She said the rally was meant to be a message to Murkowski, urging her to “stand with Alaskans and oppose this project.”
“We’ve opposed this project for years and years,” Heaverley said. “Though we’re little voices — we stand together. But we cannot put an end to this broken fast-track process alone. We need Sen. Murkowski’s help to do so.”
Demonstrators held signs along the Sterling Highway saying things like, “Pebble doesn’t rock” and “Pebble never. Bristol Bay forever.”
The rally was one of six being held this week in front of Murkowski’s offices across the state. The rallies ask for Murkowski’s “oversight and action in calling for a suspension of the NEPA process for Pebble,” a Tuesday press release from Cook Inletkeeper, who helped organize the local event, said.
“It’s the last week for the public comment period and we’re looking to our leaders and decision-makers to take a harder stand with Alaskans and call out the flaws of this process,” Satchel Pondolfino, who helped organize the event for Cook Inletkeeper, said.
The Pebble Mine project — first proposed by Cominco Limited in the late 1980s and now being proposed by Pebble Limited Partnership — seeks to develop a deposit containing billions of tons of copper, gold and molybdenum on state land in Southwest Alaska, about 100 miles from Bristol Bay, as the crow flies. With a projected lifespan of 20 years, the project is expected to created 1,500 to 2,000 total jobs, according to the Pebble Partnership.
Last week the U.S. House passed an amendment to the federal budget that would suspend funding for permitting of the proposed Pebble Mine project.
Demonstrators outside of the Blazy Mall hope Murkowski and other senators pass the amendment.
“The process is moving at unprecedented speeds,” Heaverley said. “It’s not fair. I want to believe in the process, but I can’t when it’s so unfair and they’ve overlooked so much in their draft (environmental impact statement). We’re pleading with Murkowski to speak for us and stand up for Alaska and end Pebble Mine.”
Many residents are concerned with how the mine would affect the Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery, the largest in the world.
“The threat it poses to the region of Bristol Bay — the livelihoods of the fisheries, the economic value that those pose to the region, the cultures of the indigenous people …” Heaverley said.
Tom Thibodeau, who has been flying in the region for 35 years, said he was at the rally because he wants to see the area free of development and more welcoming to wildlife.
“There used to be a lot of caribou over there before they started developing it — you know checking in and looking at that area with helicopters and a lot of other activity,” Thibodeau said. “I’d like to see it go back. It’s just not the right spot for it. It’s right at the headwaters of all of the Bristol Bay fishery rivers. It needs to be stopped. We don’t need it. We don’t need the gold.”
Friends of the McNeil River recently gave a presentation in May regarding the mine’s potential impacts on the area’s bear viewing industry at the Kenai and Soldotna Joint Chamber Luncheon. At their June 18 meeting, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted down a resolution that would urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider the economic impacts to the bear viewing industry in the Pebble Mine environmental impact statement.
Assembly member Willy Dunne, who sponsored the resolution, said the document didn’t take a stand on the issue, but asked the U.S. Army Corps to consider any economic impacts.
“We just need to take a good hard look at this,” Dunne said at the meeting.
The assembly voted it down 6-3, and assembly President Wayne Ogle saw the resolution as “unnecessary and at the eleventh hour.”
“I spent a couple years working on the North Slope on the pipeline and I can tell you, polar bears and brown bears don’t care two hoots about the road or the pipeline,” assembly member Dale Bagley said at the meeting. “They go where they want, when they want. I do think the Pebble Partnership has looked at this.”
On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would resume considering whether to withdraw proposed Obama-era restrictions on mining activity in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region.
The EPA, as part of a 2017 settlement with the developer of the proposed Pebble Mine, agreed to initiate a process for withdrawing the proposed restrictions. But in January 2018, the EPA suspended that effort, saying it wanted more information on how the project could impact fish. The EPA has said Bristol Bay produces about half the world’s sockeye salmon. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is evaluating a permit application by the developer.
In a statement, Murkowski said she has never supported preemptive restrictions for any project in Alaska.
“It is inappropriate for an agency to prejudge a project years before its developer has filed a permit application,” Murkowksi said. “Allowing agencies to expand their authority in this manner would be a dangerous precedent that undermines confidence in the normal, well-established permitting process.”
Murkowski urged the EPA to make any concerns it has known to the Army Corps of Engineers.
“I continue to reserve judgment about the Pebble mine and am closely following the permitting process to determine whether it can avoid harming Bristol Bay’s world-class fishery,” Murkowski said. “EPA’s intent to elevate the environmental concerns for this project is the right decision and will help ensure they are fully addressed. I look forward to reviewing EPA’s comments, as well as the comments being filed by Alaskans and scientists.”
The Army Corps of Engineers released its draft environmental impact statement for the Pebble project in February. Public comment for the draft environmental impact statement closes Monday.
Murkowski’s office did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
Associated Press contributed to this story