Alaska Superior Court Judge Eric A Aarseth has found that the state did not violate the Alaska Constitution in issuing mineral exploration permits for the Pebble mine project, at the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Southwest Alaska. Aarseth also ruled in his 154-page decision issued on Sept. 26 that the state did not need to study first potential impacts of such exploration activities.
Environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, representing Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of the Land) and several individuals in the case, is considering taking the case to the Alaska Supreme Court. The plaintiffs have 30 days to decide after the court issues its final judgment. Alaska Attorney General John J. Burns, who represented the state in the case, and the Pebble Limited Partnership, an intervener in the lawsuit, applauded the decision. Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said the decision will bring some stability to those wishing to conduct mineral exploration on state lands, and that the partnership looked forward to concluding its 2011 work and outlining its work scope for 2012.
The case over mining exploration at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed dates back to 2009, when Nunamta Aulukestai and several individuals charged that the state had violated the Alaska Constitution by allowing Pebble exploration to go on for two decades with no analysis of impacts to resources and no public notice.
Trustees legal director Victoria Clark said Bristol Bay residents “want a rational, science-based look at the totality of the impacts, including impacts at the exploration stage before – not after – damage has been done.”
Trustees attorney Nancy Wainwright said there was a great deal of concern over the exploration work, which involved petroleum products that are toxic to fish. “Many of the drilling holes were made within 100 feet of streams and some right next to streams and we think that kind of discharge in that area is very, very dangerous,” Wainwright said. Bristol Bay residents, who depend on the world famous salmon run for commercial, sport and subsistence harvests, contend that development of the copper, gold and molybdenum mine poses a major threat to hundreds of salmon spawning streams in that area.