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Alaska's Bristol Bay is rich in both wild salmon and valuable metals like gold and copper. To protect the salmon, the Obama administration proposed limits on mining in the Bristol Bay region. A company intent on exceeding those limits sees better prospects under President Trump's EPA. It's brought on more investors and plans to file permits by the end of the year. Daysha Eaton reports.
DAYSHA EATON, BYLINE: Clinton Hobson has a seasonal job plugging exploratory drill holes at the proposed Pebble Mine site in southwest Alaska.
CLINTON HOBSON: It's hard work, but hey, it's a job.
EATON: Hobson is Athabaskan, an indigenous group from Alaska. He lives across a huge lake from the mine site in the tiny village of Kokhanok where jobs are hard to come by. Asked whether he shared concerns about the development's possible impacts to water with others in the area, he said...
HOBSON: Nothing to say on that. That's up to them. I'm just here just trying to get some work done and trying to make some money for the family there.
EATON: Mine opponent Alannah Hurley lives about 100 miles from the site in Dillingham. She says she understands the need to work but that building the mine is too risky for salmon.
ALANNAH HURLEY: Bristol Bay is the last place on Earth that salmon thrive. We should care about that as a society.
EATON: Hurley is Yup'ik, Alaska Native. She does commercial and subsistence fishing, and she's leading a group of tribes that came together specifically to fight the mine. Indigenous people have fished for thousands of years in Bristol Bay. They still do. That's part of the reason the EPA, under the Obama administration, used the Clean Water Act to propose limits on what the mine could do and how big it could be. That's what the EPA could now overturn. Hurley's group is preparing.
HURLEY: We'll do whatever it takes, whether it's in the courtroom, whether it's laying in front of bulldozers.
EATON: While the mine could bring an economic boost to communities close to the development, it could also endanger Bristol Bay. Commercial fishermen are united against it. Tom Collier is CEO of Pebble Partnership, the company that wants to mine here. He says under a new plan, the mine would have a smaller footprint - nearly 13 square miles. Collier says his company is taking the concerns of tribes seriously.
TOM COLLIER: Our difference of opinion is that I think we can build this mine without doing any damage whatsoever to those things. And I think that's what this permit process is about.
EATON: President Donald Trump's EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt met with Collier in May. Pruitt has worked to give greater voice to the industries the EPA regulates. The EPA has received more than a million comments on Pebble mine. Most of them support protecting Bristol Bay. Hurley says that doesn't surprise her because Bristol Bay is known around the world for its wild salmon. But she says it's not just about fish as food or fishing as an industry.
HURLEY: When it comes down to it, this is an indigenous rights issue that all people should be concerned about.
EATON: At risk, Hurley says, are native cultures that have successfully made the transition from prehistory to the present based on the same keystone species - salmon. For his part, seasonal worker Clinton Hobson hopes the mine can be built safely. He wants to be able to keep catching salmon with his family each summer, and he wants his job at the mine site to continue.
HOBSON: I got bills to pay. There's nothing cheap in the village.
EATON: The EPA issued a statement saying it will consider all public input before making a decision. For NPR News, I'm Daysha Eaton in Anchorage.
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