May 10, 2019
By Isabelle Ross
Last month, six commercial fishermen filed a lawsuit against the regional seafood association in Bristol Bay to which they belong. The lawsuit, funded by the Pebble Limited Partnership, challenges more than $250,000 in funds the association had spent on groups that oppose the Pebble Mine. Now, the Dunleavy administration has added its voice to the dispute.
The Dunleavy administration has sided with the Pebble-backed plaintiffs in a legal dispute over whether the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association can fund groups opposed to the proposed mine. In an amicus brief filed May 6, the state holds that BBRSDA should have no involvement in Pebble’s permitting process, and should instead confine its activities to marketing.
“So our interest is in making sure that these associations are sticking to their statutory purposes,” said Dario Borghesan, the assistant attorney general with the Alaska Department of Law.
According to Borghesan, the state takes issue with BBRSDA’s financial agreements with groups opposed to Pebble, namely, the United Tribes of Bristol Bay and SalmonState. In the state’s view, those contracts are not in line with the association’s mission. He points to the language of the association’s sponsors in the legislature.
“So our position is that they used pretty specific language about promoting and marketing regional seafood products. You know, it looks like the activities that BBRSDA is undertaking are outside that statutory purpose,” Borghesan said.
The association, of course, disagrees.
“Just as a matter of pure economics – forget the politics of it – pure economics – they’ve made an investment,” said Scott Kendall, an attorney for BBRSDA.
The association filed a motion to dismiss the state’s brief yesterday. Kendall said not weighing in on a project that could impact the region’s fishery is out of the question.
“The economics of a fishery are pounds of fish times the per-pound value,” he said. “Pebble Mine could impact both negatively. It could reduce the abundance of the fishery. And no matter what, a major mine going into that area will degrade the region’s image as wild and unspoiled.”
Most commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay are required to join BBRSDA and pay a 1 percent tax on their catch. Those dues fund the association. The association’s response to the state includes letters from the Parnell and Walker administrations that acknowledge the association’s authority to spend funds at its own discretion. Kendall says acknowledging that precedent is important.
“What’s changed between the last seven years and Monday of this week?” he asked. “They’ve reversed that precedent. The statutes haven’t changed. The only thing that appears to have changed is the posture of the administration.”
In an emailed statement, Press Secretary Matt Shuckerow said the governor wants to see the Pebble project follow the permitting process. Shuckerow did not say whether the governor is for or against the mine. In a recent letter, Dunleavy opposed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers extending the deadline for the public comment period on Pebble. Despite that, the Army Corps did extend the comment period.
Since that extension was announced last Friday the Army Corps has made a few changes. The final day to submit comments for both the draft EIS and Pebble’s application is now July 1. That’s two days later than the extension’s original end date of June 29. The Army Corps did not initially extend comment period for Pebble’s application, which was originally set to end on May 30.
A hearing on the case is scheduled for Monday in Anchorage.
BBRSDA is a supporter of KDLG’s Bristol Bay Fisheries Report.