Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell said Monday she would oppose a proposed huge copper and gold mine near Alaska's Bristol Bay if studies find it would harm salmon and thus put jobs in her own state at risk.
In a letter sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Cantwell described Bristol Bay's salmon population as an economic lynchpin for commercial fishermen both in Alaska and Washington.
Nearly 1,000 Washington residents hold Bristol Bay commercial fishing licenses, she said.
"Thousands of my constituents have contacted me expressing their concerns regarding the potentially catastrophic and widespread long-term impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine, which would be the world's largest man-made excavation," Cantwell said in her letter.
Cantwell called on the Environmental Protection Agency to consider using the Clean Water Act to prohibit or restrict large-scale development around the bay if it would harm the world-class salmon-producing rivers in the region.
She also expressed her support of the agency's decision to conduct a thorough analysis of large-scale mining near the Pebble Mine project site.
In addition to commercial fishing jobs, nearly all major seafood operations that process Bristol Bay fish are based in Washington. Cantwell's letter said Bristol Bay commercial and recreational fisheries are worth at least $500 million annually.
The EPA announced in February that it would analyze the potential impact of the Pebble mine proposal on watersheds feeding Bristol Bay.
The Bristol Bay Native Corp. and nine federally recognized Bristol Bay Alaska native tribes have asked the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to stop the mine from being developed. The analysis is expected to be released this fall.
Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and Anglo American plc in the United Kingdom have a 50-50 partnership in the Pebble project. Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble Partnership, which represents the two companies, was not immediately available for comment.
The companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars scoping out the deposit, which Northern Dynasty describes as the largest undeveloped deposit of its type in the world with the potential of producing 53 billion pounds of copper, 50 million ounces of gold and 2.8 billion pounds of molybdenum over nearly 80 years.
The head of Bristol Bay Native Corp. which has over 9,000 shareholders, welcomed Cantwell's move. Jason Metrokin said in a statement that Pebble presents an "unacceptable risk to Bristol Bay salmon, which have supported our communities for thousands of years" while providing an important commercial, food and cultural resource.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Cantwell, also a member of the panel, is attempting to pre-judge development in Bristol Bay in what amounts to a serious violation of Alaska's state's rights that would undermine the established environmental review process that requires dozens of permits.
"A pre-emptive veto makes no more sense than a pre-emptive approval," Murkowski said in a statement.