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Pebble Mine: Alaskans don't want feds, enviros deciding their future

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Watchdog,Environment,Greenpeace,Sierra Club,Alaska,Climate Change,Pebble Mine,Mining

ILIAMNA, Alaska — Lary Hill grew up in a crowded house surrounded by generations of family deep in the Alaska bush country.

In Iliamna, some 180 air miles southwest of Anchorage, communities hunted and fished to survive.

Hill, 68 and an elder of the community of 120 residents, said his family had no idea they were poor until the federal government told them.

"We always had enough food to eat and a warm place to live, with family all around. We had no understanding of what poor meant," he said.

Then, through years of government-administered programs in which "being poor meant you could get free stuff," the destiny of the region's people seemed to be in the hands of bureaucrats.

Hill knows all too well, though, what the government giveth, it can taketh away.

"There's been a pattern here for so many years where the federal government, once they start giving us all these things, once they do that, we pretty much lose control over our own life, our own society," he said.

"If we don't behave, the government will take the benefits away," he added.

Poverty prevails in Iliamna and the region, where at least a quarter of the population is unemployed. Now there is opportunity in Iliamna, and the potential for so much more.

Hill and several others in his community are employees of the Pebble Limited Partnership. The development initiative of London-based Anglo American and British Columbia's Northern Dynasty Minerals, proposes developing the mine, a multibillion-dollar capital investment that would create thousands of good paying, short- and long-term jobs, according to PLP.

In conversations with Watchdog.org, Hill and other community members on the PLP payroll say they are not yet sold on the project. They want to know more about it.

If the large-scale copper and gold mine can't co-exist with Alaska's salmon fishing industry — if a mine can't operate without destroying their tribe's native land — they don't want it.

But they also don't want the government and environmental groups with an ax to grind telling them — again — what's good or bad for them.

That's what it feels like to Iliamna community members who worry that the EPA could drop a regulatory hydrogen bomb on the town's potential — Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, which could pre-emptively kill the mine project before a plan is submitted.

"People aren't asking us, they are just pushing things on us," said Lisa Reimers, CEO of the Iliamna Development Corp.

There are a number of residents of Iliamna, many more outside the region, asking the EPA to veto the project. They fear a large-scale mine would ruin the Bristol Bay Watershed, which feeds 50 percent of the world's sockeye salmon population, critical to the region's economy.

But critics vehemently opposed to large-scale mining in Anchorage and elsewhere also expressed their dismay that the project may not have the opportunity to be heard and that EPA has the power to strip basic due process.

You'll have to excuse Pebble officials for feeling a little anxious with the arrival Tuesday of the EPA's new administrator, Gina McCarthy.

The last time an EPA administrator came to Alaska to talk about the Pebble project, in late July 2010, then-EPA chief Lisa Jackson apparently forgot to mention to PLP that some Alaska communities and tribes had submitted a petition asking the EPA to impose the pre-emptive veto provision.

In February 2011, EPA opted to perform a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment that predicted massive damage but was criticized by many of the document's peer reviewers for faulty, hypothetical science.

Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for Pebble Partnership, said Pebble officials are more optimistic about this EPA visit this time around, that the tone of the new administrator seems more open to a "transparent effort."

The past is problematic, however.

Reimers and other community members say they had tried on several occasions to meet with the former EPA administrator, to no avail. At the same time, Jackson opened her door on several occasions to opponents of the mine proposal.

So, community members like Sue Anelon, who also works for Pebble, have a lot to say to the new EPA administrator.

"We don't want this regulation [404(c)] enforced upon us," Anelon said. "We'll make that decision, not somebody else forcing it on us. We're going to tell her, this is not fair to our communities."

Hill said he wants to know just what another outside agency will decide for his community.

"If she invokes the power of the Clean Water Act, that might rob our area of the chance to have an industry that would allow us to do more than survive, but thrive," Hill said.

M.D. Kittle is a reporter for Watchdog.org, which is affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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