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Alaska Natives ask EPA to stop threatening their economy

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Abe Williams and Lisa Reimers of Nuna Resources, an Alaska Native consortium, flew to Washington this week to see Environmental Protection Agency Director Lisa Jackson. They wanted to ask her help ensuring the survival of their Bristol Bay region's Native Alaskan tradition and culture. They got a response as frosty as Alaska in February.

Nuna Resources and its native village constituency want to allow impartial scientific studies to build the Pebble Mine near their homes and villages. The natives do not specifically endorse the mine, which would exploit the largest known ore body of copper on the planet. But they want its proposed developer, the Pebble Limited Partnership, to be given a fair hearing for its claims of environmental and cultural protection on Native traditional lands.

Jackson would not even give Williams and Reimers a meeting. The EPA's emailed reply their request for one -- on Feb. 6, 7 or 8 -- came just two days before their already-scheduled flights: "While the Administrator greatly appreciates this request, she will unfortunately be unavailable."

The note ended, "Have a nice day." Really.

Nuna's board of directors cannot compete with the large donors financing a slick AstroTurf campaign to "Stop Pebble Mine" and "Save Bristol Bay." Deep-pocketed individuals and companies like Gordon Moore (Intel), Tiffany Company Foundation and Brainerd Foundation (a software fortune) have given millions to anti-development Big Green groups like Natural Resources Defense Council, Trout Unlimited and EarthWorks.

By contrast, the natives who stand to gain most from the mine are facing a dire economic situation, toward which President Obama's EPA has turned a blind eye. The salmon catch in Bristol Bay -- the region's economic linchpin -- dwindles each year. And even in the best years, locals fish only during the three-to-four week season, then go back to villages where there are no jobs. Families are crushed by the cost of living there -- milk costs $9 a gallon and gasoline is at $8. They see horrible teen suicide rates.

Despairing locals cluster in coastal fishing towns, where they take unsteady, dangerous and low-paying jobs. They also leave their traditions and culture a distant memory, because there is no economy to keep them home.

The Pebble mine, Reimers said, would create a local economy, with year-round work for thousands. It is already classified by the state as solely mineral land. The people from Iliamna, Newhalen and other villages already have steady jobs (for now) working on Pebble's pre-feasibility and exploratory tasks.

Even without Jackson on their agenda, Williams and Reimers knew to arrange several other meetings on Capitol Hill, because she had snubbed them before, in July 2010. Jackson and several high-ranking EPA officials toured Alaska with an itinerary skewed to include only anti-mine participants. When Williams and Reimers -- who were told of this tour only at the last minute -- asked Jackson to visit their villages of Newhalen, Iliamna and others, they were turned down.

An EPA contact finally did invite them to voice their concerns (the following day) in Dillingham -- a roadless town over a hundred miles away from them, accessible only by air or water transport, and at their own expense. They didn't have the $3,000 they would have needed to travel there, so they didn't go, Reimers said.

Reimers and Williams did not know that as Jackson was touring Alaska, her agency was silently working to block the mine. A group of six federally recognized tribes collectively known as Nunamta Aulukestai -- "caretakers of the land" in Yup'ik -- had on May 21 mailed a fiendishly twisted petition to the EPA that would stop the Pebble Mine by using a provision of the Clean Water Act in a way it had never been used before.

If EPA would simply forbid the deposit of mining fill material on the Pebble site, they could block the mine. This was an end-run around the normal permitting process, which would have involved an environmental impact study. And it worked.

During her visit to Alaska, Jackson did not reveal to the people most affected by this that it was already in the works. Why not? Perhaps to give EPA time to complete the steps needed to justify using it to kill Pebble Mine.

The future of Nuna's vision for cultural survival looks grim indeed.

Well, have a nice day.

Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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Ron Arnold

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The Washington Examiner