Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mine Study Still in Limbo

By Bob Tkacz

The Alaska Legislature appears to have finished meeting for the year, but funding approved in 2010 for a study of potential impacts from a large mine remains in the control of a joint House/Senate management committee, with no indication of when it may meet to allow the $750,000 appropriation to be spent.

Viewed from outside the arcane legislative world, that may appear to be a lack of progress. That’s not the case. Legislative opponents of the study, first proposed in House Concurrent Resolution 15 in 2009, were hopeful the spending authority would lapse. Lawmakers backing the research were able to move the appropriation into the legislature’s budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Without that move the money would have gone back to the state treasury, killing the study.

HCR 15 called for “an independent review by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to provide interdisciplinary assessment of the known and probable cumulative environmental and socioeconomic consequences of large-scale mineral extraction in the Bristol Bay area watershed, including hydrological systems and aquifers, biological resources, and communities, and an assessment of critical gaps in existing knowledge necessary to adequately understand, predict, and manage the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of mineral extraction in the Bristol Bay area watershed.”

The resolution was sponsored by Reps. Alan Austerman (R-Kodiak) and Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), who is one of four Democrats in the House Republican-controlled majority caucus.

The study, expected to take more than a year to complete, could have begun a year ago, but opponents in the Legislative Council complained that a sole-source contract to the National Academy was inappropriate and wanted to have the work offered to any qualified research firm through a standard request for proposals process.

The matter was sent to a subcommittee chaired by Chugiak Rep. Bill Stoltze, a long-time critic of the seafood industry, but the subcommittee never met to decide the question.

Membership of the Legislative Council was changed after last year’s election but the current head of the panel said the question would be taken up “no sooner than August.”

“I could try the August agenda,” said Sen. Linda Menard (R-Wasilla, June 27. She also noted that ten of the 16 council members have travel plans.

Austerman declined to predict the future of his project and had no idea, in June, when the question of the study would be considered. “I’m not going to try and speculate at this point in time as to when, where and why,” he said. Austerman first asked for $1 million for the study and expressed concern that the reduced amount might not be sufficient.

Despite the continuing delays, Senate Pres. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) remains optimistic. “I think that it will happen. It’s a good idea and we should be doing it,” he said.

The Parnell Administration, Alaska Miners Association and mining industry oppose the study while the seafood industry supports it.

“When it comes time to examine the permitting of (the proposed Pebble mine) the proposed economic activity it generates will be impressive, perhaps even staggering. Because of this, it will be extremely important to have a full and accurate representation of this project’s total cost to the environment, its resources and the people of the region to counterbalance,” wrote Barry Collier, president of Peter Pan Seafoods, in a March 2010 letter endorsing passage of HCR 15.

“Bristol Bay sockeye is probably the most studied salmon stock, yet we still don’t know what causes the cyclic fluctuations in the runs. We don’t know why the Kvichak system, formerly the largest producer in the region, has crashed over the last decade only to recently begin to recover. Further study likely will not uncover these determining factors but can highlight the level of uncertainty that exists even as developers talk of containing or mitigating potential damages,” Collier wrote.

Trident Seafood also endorsed the research. “Trident Seafoods welcomes a thorough third-party scientific assessment of the potential impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine project,” wrote John Gardner, director of Trident’s Salmon Division, in a similar missive.

Bob Tkacz can be reached at

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