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Villagers sue to halt massive Pebble Mine above Bristol Bay

July 30, 2009 |  3:10 pm


It has always been a match made in peril: One of the biggest copper and gold mines in the world perched in the watershed above Bristol Bay, the last, best refuge for millions of wild salmon in the Pacific.

The proposed Pebble Mine would dwarf all the other mines operating in the Alaskan wilderness and generate up to 9 billion tons of ore, most of which would have to be sifted and disposed of near the hills, streams and ponds that ultimately feed into Bristol Bay.

It would also generate hundreds of jobs in troubled southwest Alaska and up to $300 billion worth of copper and gold.

In an attempt to head off the project before it gets too big to stop, a coalition of Native Alaskan village corporations and others filed suit Download Suit this week in Anchorage, charging that the state of Alaska is violating its own constitution by allowing drilling and other exploration activities to proceed without full environmental review.

The mine would cover 15 square miles, with a 1,600-foot-deep open pit ranging 2 square miles. Early development proposals -- likely to be changed, as mine operators zero in on the location of the ore and refine their operating plans -- have called for holding the hazardous tailings behind a series of massive dams, one 740 feet high, the other 450 feet high. The exact plans won't be known until 2010 or 2011, when Pebble Partnership submits its development permit applications to the state.

Conservationists worry that waiting years for public hearings and a full Environmental Impact Statement is a mistake. By then, with millions of dollars expended in exploration, the mine will have acquired a political momentum against which even Alaska's powerful fishing industry could come up short.

The lawsuit, filed in Alaska Superior Court by the public interest law firm Trustees for Alaska, invokes an article of the Alaska Constitution thatrequires the state to conduct hearings and analyses to determine whether state-owned natural resources are being managed for the common public good. Specifically, they argue that the state should be conducting studies to determine whether exploration at the mine is affecting other users of public land, water, fish and wildlife.

"This kind of activity is being treated for all purposes as if there's some guy out there with a mule, a pick ax and a shovel turning over a little bit of rock and looking for a nugget. But this is in essence industrial-scale activity," Steve Cotton, executive director of the Trustees for Alaska, said at a news conference in Anchorage.

Representatives of Nunamta Aulukestai, a coalition of eight Native village corporations that filed the suit, said they are seeing impacts already. Fewer caribou are lingering in the area, and waste from exploratory drilling is trickling into streams and ponds, they said in court papers.

"What we would like to see right now is for everyone to take a step back and look at all the potential negative impacts associated with a development this large in an area that's incredibly sensitive and extremely important to a lot of people in this state," said Tim Bristol, director of Trout Unlimited in Alaska, which has opposed the mine but is not a plaintiff in this week's lawsuit.

"You have a giant open pit proposed, you're going to have billions of tons of waste rock, 100 miles of access road, a deep-water port is going to have to be constructed, there's going to have to be a source of power, incredible amounts of water to charge the system and store the waste, and you have to think about how to treat that waste in a region that right now is sort of this wild salmon wilderness," Bristol said.

Trout Unlimited and other conservationists are backing legislation that would require a whole separate set of reviews for the Pebble Mine, given its proximity to Bristol Bay, which generates a third of the state's commercial fishing revenues. The state legislature won't have a chance to act on that until it re-convenes in January.

State officials say plenty of studies will be done once Pebble applies for its development permits. At the moment, they say, exploration is going on at hundreds of mining claims large and small across the state, and state law requires no formal studies or public hearings.

"There are 400 to 500 of these in place, statewide, at any one time," said Tom Crafford, mining coordinator at the state Department of Natural Resources. "Absolutely, once a project applies for development permits, then that triggers a whole host of permit requirements, public notice requirements, comment periods, both state and federal."

Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively said there has already been full inspection by state and federal agencies, including the state Department of Fish and Game and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. "So it's not like there's no oversight or that the public doesn't have the ability to look at what our program is and to go tell the agencies what they think about it," he told KTUU-TV in Anchorage.

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: The Pile River flows into Lake Iliamna near the headwaters of Bristol Bay. Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.