Dillingham, Naknek residents voice a resounding support for EPA assessment

Dillingham and Naknek residents overwhelmingly voiced their support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s study of Bristol Bay-area watersheds in light of proposed large-scale mining efforts.

The EPA held public comment sessions on its draft watershed assessment June 5 in both communities. Residents came out in force. In Dillingham, about 300 people showed up, and more than 80 commented, nearly all in favor of the EPA assessment.

In Naknek, more than 150 attended the meeting, with about 65 speaking, a handful of those in support of the mine, according to EPA officials.

Thomas Tilden, chief of the Curyung Tribal Council, said the assessment is generally on target, but is weak in reviewing potential seismic activity in the region. He also noted more review should be done on the dependence of the region’s Native people on fish.

Alaska Sen. Gary Stevens, speaking for himself and not his constituents, said he appreciates the EPA effort to produce a science-based document, but is concerned about the issue of the opposing resources: fish versus minerals.

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“We need to know how to best protect our resources,” he said. “I don’t know the answer, but it was the right thing to do, the assessment.”

Alaska Rep. Bryce Edgmon, of Dillingham, agreed, saying the issue needs scrutiny.

“We’re not just talking about one mine,” he said.

While the Pebble deposit is the largest proposal in the region, more than a dozen other prospects are being explored, according to EPA’s report.

Not all development is bad, said Tiel Smith, vice president of land and regional operations for BBNC, the largest private landowner in the region.

Smith noted that, while BBNC does not support the Pebble mine, it does support the development of projects and businesses that responsibly benefit the region and its people, such as docks, commercial fisheries and tourism.

The EPA has said the watershed assessment looks only at large-scale mining, and would not affect other development in the region.

At the meetings, dozens of people wore blue T-shirts emblazoned with “Save Our Wild Salmon.” Nunamta Aulukestai, a nonprofit organization that represents nine Alaska Native village corporations in the Bristol Bay area, provided the shirts for free. The affect was a virtual sea of blue within the crowd.

Sergie Chukwak, wearing the common ensemble of a blue shirt and Xtratuf boots, told the EPA in Naknek that Alaska Natives have lived off the salmon for more than 6,000 years, and want to ensure that the people can do so for at least another 6,000.

The active life for mining is relatively short by comparison, but the potential long-term dangers remain for years.

“Fishing is our life. It’s what we do,” said Chukwak, a Bristol Bay Native Corporation board member. “The short life of a mine would last 75 years or so, but once the activity is done, the mine sits there.”

Also in Naknek, BBNC board member Peter Andrews said the waters need protection.

“We asked you to come here,” he said. “I urge you to take care of our people and our culture and our way of life. You are the only agency that may be able to help us.”

Protecting the culture was a common theme from many of those speaking, including from elder Robert Nicolai.

“My elders always say the food comes from the land and the sea,” Nicolai said through translator Joseph Chythlook. If what I’m hearing about Pebble is true, it would impact the land and the sea.”

Moses Kritz of Togiak said: “Our grandparents always taught us how important the water is to us. We didn’t know we were poor because we had all the resources around us to sustain our way of life. We still are who we are, and we’re carrying to our children and grandchildren our way of life.”

Several speakers noted that traditional subsistence life, although not a traditional Western version of employment, is a job nonetheless.

“Many don’t have jobs, but hunting and fishing is like jobs to many in the village, because they can be assured they’ll have something to eat,” Nicolai said.

Public comment sessions also were held in Levelock, Igiugig, Nondalton and New Stuyahok. Written comments on the draft watershed assessment will be accepted through July 23.