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Frank Murkowski Calls for the EPA to Stop the "Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment"

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Former U.S. Senator Frank Murkowski is calling on President Obama to stop the EPA's efforts to prepare a watershed assessment for the Bristol Bay region. This comes as some vocal opponents are criticizing the Agency for further delays in the process.

Frank Murkowski is a former Governor in Alaska and represented the state in the U.S. Senate for decades.    Last week Murkowski had an opinion piece published in the Juneau Empire calling on President Obama to develop polices which strike a fair balance between resource development and conservation and he used the proposed Pebble Mine as an example of the need to reconsider existing policy. In the piece Murkowski writes that,

"Most would agree that we should not in any way trade the tremendous fishery resource of Bristol Bay for copper and gold."

However, he goes onto note that he is indignant that the EPA has sought to preempt the authorized permitting process and move ahead and conduct a watershed assessment that evaluates the impacts of a "theoretical" Pebble Mine. Murkowski claims that by its draft assessment the EPA has already gone a long way towards pre-judging the areas suitability for development under section 404 of the Clean Water Act before receiving an actual permit application. Murkowski further claims that if the 15-million acres of land subject to the assessment are made unavailable for development, it will not only be seen as a taking, it will have been de facto set aside for preservation by the Federal government. That's the first example in some time that someone has raised the specter of a "Taking", which could mean that the developers have a right to be compensated if they can't develop their mining leases. Frank Murkowski has a long record of supporting resource development in Alaska and in his opinion piece he says the Pebble Mine could supply a significant number of jobs and he implies the mine could co-exist with subsistence and commercial fisheries in the region. Murkowski wrapped up his piece by asking President Obama to withdraw the draft watershed assessment and let the NEPA and Clean Water act Section 404 processes determine whether the project should go forward. Earlier this month the EPA announced that they will be conducting a second review of the draft watershed assessment released last year. That means that a final version of the assessment will likely be delayed until the end of this year or even later. That has prompted some criticism from a handful of organization seeking a halt to large scale mining in the region. Trout Unlimited issued a statement claiming that the EPA has already gone above and beyond the letter of the law in drafting its Assessment and conducting an independent and transparent review. Tim Bristol, the Alaska Program Director for Trout Unlimited is quoted as saying,

“This added delay is unacceptable to Bristol Bay’s communities and stakeholders, and leaves a dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over Bristol Bay’s 14,000 jobs and its commercial and sport fishing industries.”

Another entity criticizing the EPA is "Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay", which is a network of organizations that support the commercial fishing industry in Bristol Bay. In a written statement Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association Executive Director Bob Waldrop said,

"We are disheartened that the agency would drag its review out and only increase the uncertainty for fishermen and processors. Three years ago, commercial fishermen, Alaska Native tribes and sport fishermen asked the Obama Administration to protect the world’s greatest sockeye salmon fishery and the 14,000 jobs it sustains from the threats of mega mining. We did not ask for years of study and process.”

During the public comment period for the first Draft of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment the EPA received over 230-thousand comments.    The vast majority were in favor of the Assessment and its findings.