Opinion: It’s time for Senator Murkowski to protect Bristol Bay

By Matthew R. Berry

Sen. Lisa Murkowski prides herself on being Alaskan — independent by nature, willing to buck trends and party-lines, and participate in good-natured, old-school bipartisanship. Supporters have ammunition to back that argument. The senator from the powerhouse Murkowski family voted to impeach former President Donald Trump following the Jan.6, 2021, attack on the United States Capitol by his supporters and lauded the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law). Furthermore, she has supported plenty of President Joe Biden’s administrative nominations, including Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior, voting trends that bucked the majority of the GOP voting establishment.

So why then is the senator not introducing and supporting permanent protections of Bristol Bay, an initiative which most of her Alaskan constituents support? The Bristol Bay Defense Fund released a poll in 2020 stating 62% of Alaskans oppose the construction and potential devastation that the Pebble Mine could bring to western Alaska. As a representative of all Alaskans, Senator Murkowski has an obligation to listen to her constituents in the Bristol Bay region who oppose the Pebble Mine by upwards of 80%, as evidenced by a poll conducted by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay in 2018. Her constituents in the state have voiced their opinion clearly: permanent protections for Bristol Bay are the path forward to ensure that a region, economy and ecosystem are not devastated by the effects of the Pebble Mine.

In a 2014 proposed determination assessing the impacts of what would become the largest mine in North America, visible from space and placed on wet and porous earth next to Alaska Native villages, the Environmental Protection Agency states:

“Given the extent of streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds both overlying the Pebble deposit and within adjacent watersheds, excavation of a massive mine pit and construction of large tailings impoundments and waste rock piles would result in discharge of dredged or fill material into these waters. This discharge would result in complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering, and fragmentation of streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources… All of these losses would be irreversible.”

In short, the EPA already established, through rigorous detail, that toxic tailings from the Pebble Mine would permeate through the soft, marshy ground and destroy the habitats of millions of salmon and other fish that return to the Bristol Bay region every summer.

Now, to be fair to the senator, her stance on the Pebble Mine is well documented. She stated, following the release of recorded conversations of Pebble Mine executives, that “the reality of this situation is the Pebble project has not met that bar and a permit cannot be issued to it.”

This was in 2020.

Now it is 2022, an election year for Senator Murkowski. She has been censured by the Alaska State Republican Party and she contends with a Trump-supported candidate, Kelly Tshibaka. Alaskans should have zero doubts in their mind that Senator Tshibaka would never protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine.

The EPA continues its decision into implementing a Clean Water Act 404(c) determination, which would deny the federal permits required for the Pebble Mine. Senator Murkowski has the ability to eliminate federal decision-making from the process by introducing language for permanent protections for Bristol Bay through legislative action. Our elected senator could end the fight and give Alaskans peace of mind that she has our best interests in mind.

Senator Murkowski holds a unique position at the moment. She has the ability to sway undecided voters who value Alaska as a true treasure. She can protect a region that hosts the world’s largest producer of sockeye salmon and holds immeasurable worth to the Alaskans that have lived in this region since time immemorial. She can protect our state from outside interests that want to extract resources and leave devastation in their wake.

Senator Murkowski has shown willingness to buck her Party’s views on issues. She had the guts to vote to impeach former President Trump following his instigation of the attack on our Capital – let’s see if she shows the same kind of bravery to protect Alaska, its people, and its land. Come on Lisa, show us what you got.

• Matthew R. Berry lived in Juneau from 2017-2020. Currently, Berry resides in Fort Collins, Colorado. Berry is a U.S. Army veteran, graduate of University of Alaska Southeast and currently a pursuing master’s in conservation leadership at Colorado State University. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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