This week Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) signed on to co-sponsor a bill proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and David Vitter (R-La.) that would severely curtail the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to protect Bristol Bay from proposals like Pebble Mine.

The purpose of the legislation is to gut the Clean Water Act and prevent the federal agency from using its authority to disrupt business interests. The way the bill is written would also enable Congress to strip EPA's authority retroactively and prevent the final watershed assessment from closing the door on Pebble.

Murkowski claims that she supports the bill because she's afraid the Pebble decision is going to set a precedent that will negatively affect the business climate in Alaska. But that would only be the case if EPA were voracious in its approach, which it certainly has not been in this case.

EPA stepped into the Pebble fray because of a groundswell of support from a large and motivated population of fishermen and residents of the area. The agency didn't just come knocking on Gov. Sean Parnell's door one day flashing federal authority. The Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay lobbied members of Congress and appealed to the voting fishing public day after day for years to convince EPA to step in and assess Pebble Mine under the Clean Water Act.

If Murkowski is legitimately worried about the precedent this sets for the EPA stepping in, then she can comfort herself knowing that the precedent set here is that the EPA only steps in when there is a massive effort to bring it in.

This kind of "interference" doesn't happen because the feds are sitting on a golden EPA throne just waiting to quell the dreams of the little guy in a far-off state. It happens because the little guys band together to fight Goliath with Goliath.

Some people call it an inappropriate use of federal authority to intervene in what they consider a state issue. But if we want to talk about inappropriate uses of authority, here's a great example: a giant (foreign) mining company spotting a rich deposit and making back-room deals with representatives from state government regardless of the wishes of the residents and historic stakeholders of the area in which the deposit rests.

I know Alaskans are independent. I have lived in Maine for 16 years, and I grew up in Georgia. The residents of these states are also fiercely independent. I can absolutely relate to hesitation about having the federal government intervene. But if the state is not willing or able to step up and protect the fishing industry — its largest private sector employer — then don't the people of that industry have a right to find someone who will?

The EPA didn't volunteer to assess Pebble just so it could shut down a mine. The federal government stepped in because that's what the people in Bristol Bay begged them to do. Because that was the only way they saw that they could protect their jobs and their communities.

And why did they think that? Because of precedent. Not the precedent of the feds waving their Jolly Roger, but the precedent of how the state of Alaska has handled large mining projects. To date, the state has never shut down a proposal for a large mine, regardless of what the locals or scientists have to say about it. Why? Because it's good revenue.

That may also be true of Pebble. It would provide some good jobs. But what makes this situation stand out as a clear-cut case for protection is that there is already a stellar source of revenue to be found in Bristol Bay. And that source is completely natural, native and renewable. If we protect the habitat for salmon in Bristol Bay, the fish will be an annual source of income for thousands of people forever. Forever. No one can say that about any mine on the planet.

The companies that have a stake in resource extraction have a lot of power and money. I understand that they are powerful interests to have on your side. I would like to take this moment to ask Sen. Murkowski to show some of her Alaskan fortitude and just say no to selling out her state to big businesses.

Photo: Sen. Lisa Murkowski smiles in front of a king salmon; Lisa Murkowski via Facebook

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Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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