Opinion

Chairman Lamar Smith Drags Texas Into a Fight Over Alaska’s Future

It may surprise many of you that Bristol Bay Native Corporation, an Alaska Native corporation with more than 10,000 shareholders, has a large presence in the heart of House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s Texas district. BBNC owns multiple local subsidiaries that collectively employ nearly 270 people and perform a variety of services primarily for government entities in the San Antonio area. In total, these companies account for nearly $18 million in annual wages paid to San Antonio-based employees.

I am a BBNC shareholder as well as an employee of STS System Integrations LLC, one of BBNC’s San Antonio subsidiaries. SSI provides technical, information management, and engineering support services to the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. Given its heavy interaction with the military, our work is very rewarding.

It’s rare when our ties to San Antonio directly intersect with a contentious issue in my home state of Alaska. But the proposed Pebble Mine provokes strong feelings from people in all parts of the country – from Washington, D.C., all the way to South Texas.

Chairman Smith has taken an interest in the proposed Pebble Mine ostensibly from his role on the committee. Unfortunately, his interest in what would be North America’s largest open-pit copper and gold mine is for the wrong reasons.

Chairman Smith is hoping a change in administration will give Pebble new life. He recently wrote a letter to the new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, encouraging that agency to rescind a previously-issued determination that sought to impose baseline protections for the salmon that spawn near the Pebble deposit. These were common-sense restrictions supported by the people who live in the region, and would have protected the region’s sockeye salmon runs.  

Protecting Bristol Bay and its salmon is no small concern. Bristol Bay is home to the world’s greatest wild sockeye salmon fishery – a fishery that annually generates approximately $1.5 billion in national economic activity and supports an estimated 20,000 total national jobs. Unfortunately, Congressman Smith’s letter to Pruitt suggests he values the profits of a Canadian mining company over a U.S.-based fishing industry and its fishermen.    

Fortunately, not all of Smith’s Texas colleagues agree with him. His counterpart on the House Science Committee, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (also from Texas), followed Smith’s letter with her own to Pruitt. In it, she said “I hope that you believe putting America First also means protecting Americans first before the interests of foreign corporations.”

And last year, when Smith held one of three separate hearings on the Pebble Mine, sportsmen’s groups, including the Dallas Safari Club and the Guadalupe Chapter of Trout Unlimited, told Smith, “Don’t mess with Alaska,” when it comes to Pebble Mine. Later, they called Smith’s insults that they were doing the bidding of a millionaire “all hat, no cattle.”

For Alaskans, this is not a new fight. For well over a decade, the people of Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska have been concerned about the proposed Pebble Mine. At the request of Alaskans, the Environmental Protection Agency conducted a nearly 3-year independent scientific review of the proposed mine. In 2014, its assessment confirmed what most in Bristol Bay already knew: Pebble Mine and the 10+ billion tons of potentially acid generating waste rock it could produce would cause irreparable harm to Bristol Bay, its fish, its clean water, and its economy.

Despite strong evidence of Pebble’s harm and serious concerns about the mine’s financial viability, the Canadian-owned company behind the mine won’t give up. It continues to wage a legal and political battle to halt EPA’s process, even though 60 percent of Alaskans remain opposed to the proposed Pebble Mine and serious questions remain about its financial viability.

Protecting Bristol Bay is personal for me. My siblings return to Naknek, Alaska, every year to fish in the bay’s pristine waters. Each summer, the rivers turn red as sockeye salmon make their way back to the streams in which they were born. With minimal protections, it is a scene that will be repeated in perpetuity.

Chairman Smith’s intention may not have been to pick a fight with Alaskans, but his actions to support the Pebble Mine speak otherwise. I hope he comes to learn that Bristol Bay is a place worth saving – for all Americans.

 

Kevin Prestegard, a San Antonio resident and native of Anchorage, Alaska, works at STS Systems Integration, LLC – a subsidiary of Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

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