Voters in Southwest Alaska’s Lake and Peninsula Borough have approved by a vote of 280-246 an initiative that could bar permitting for large-scale mines that would have a significant adverse impact on existing salmon streams.
The initiative, aimed at halting development of the Pebble mine at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed had been the subject of extensive campaigning on both sides.
Borough manager Lamar Cotten said this was the largest number of votes ever cast in a borough election.
Proposed development of the Pebble copper, gold and molybdenum mine has been a hot topic in Southwest Alaska for several years.
Mining firms like London-based Anglo-American, which has invested millions in mine exploration along with Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals, have maintained that they can operate the mine in harmony with the salmon fisheries.
Mine opponents contend that the project threatens spawning streams critical to the diverse salmon populations whose combined strength return millions of salmon to Bristol Bay annually.
Now that the election is completed, Alaska Superior Court Judge John Suddock is expected to again review on Nov. 7 motions for summary judgment on whether the initiative should have been placed on the ballot in the first place.
Lake and Peninsula Borough Manager Lamar Cotten said that if Suddock comes down in favor of the Pebble Limited Partnership that the borough will take the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.
“We held the election. The people voted and that was the outcome,” and the borough intends to defend the vote of its residents,” Cotten said.
Of at least equal importance to the future of this battle over mining are a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed now in progress by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a case before the Alaska Supreme Court challenging the legality of the state’s 2005 Bristol Bay area plan.
The EPA’s study will determine how large-scale development would affect water quality and habitat in the Bristol Bay watershed. The EPA is focusing its study primarily on the Kvichak and Nushagak river drainages, the primary areas in the watershed open to large-scale development. Once the study is completed and independently reviewed, the EPA has the option of imposing Section 404© of the Clean Water Act, which would prohibit or restrict certain mining activities.
The Alaska Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to decide soon whether litigation over the 2005 Bristol Bay Area Plan may be heard in the Alaska Superior Court. In that case six federally recognized tribes are seeking to throw out the plan by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and declare it unlawful. The suit alleges that the 2005 plan, which replaced a 1984 version, drastically altered, without legal justification, the land-use designations, classifications and acreages assigned in the 1984 plan. The suit alleges that the new plan fails to adequately protect subsistence, sport hunting and fishing, wildlife habitat and other renewable resources it purports to manage for public benefit.