Vote targeting Pebble Mine in Alaska is over; the battle isn't
The Pebble Mine battle, a fight over what could be the biggest open pit mine in North America, is far from over.
A few hundred voters in the remote hills of western Alaska cast ballots this week -- in one of the most closely watched elections in the country -- to halt big mining projects that might poison fishing streams. That initiative was targeted squarely at the giant Pebble Mine.
The anti-mining measure won by less than 40 votes among 526 ballots counted Monday in the sparsely populated Lake and Peninsula Borough. That's where a mining conglomerate hopes to extract 7.5 billion metric tons of gold and copper near some of the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the nation's most important salmon fishery.
Theoretically, the vote means that 280 people in the villages around King Salmon, Alaska, who cast ballots in favor of the initiative can block extraction of an estimated $300 billion worth of gold and copper and veto a project that is one of the Alaskan government's top priorities.
But the issue is quickly going back to court, where a judge in Anchorage will hear arguments Nov. 7 on the legality of the ballot measure.
"What you're going to see is they all probably spent $600,000 or $700,000 to try to influence what ends up being about 520 people who voted in the election," Lamar Cotten, manager of the Lake and Peninsula Borough, population about 1,700, said in an interview.
"But it's really a big state issue. Are we going to allow our cities and boroughs to have power to reach in and control what goes on on state land? That's obviously the big question not just for this borough, but for the whole state," he said.
The Pebble Mine controversy has spread far outside Alaska. The site lies high in the watershed above Lake Iliamna and Bristol Bay, one of the last great refuges for wild salmon in the U.S. and home to one of the nation's biggest commercial fisheries.
The often-displayed photos of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin going salmon fishing with her husband, Todd? Most were taken at Bristol Bay.
Developers dispute pollution claims
Pebble Limited Partnership, the joint venture that is proposing the mine, filed suit even before the election to block the initiative. The measure prohibits any mining project of 640 acres or more that would have a "significant adverse impact" on fisheries.
Pebble developers have said the mine wouldn't, in fact, pollute waterways. They cite a Superior Court judge's ruling last month that discounted concerns about acid rock drainage and purported problems with ground and surface water. The court concluded that years of exploratory operations so far have caused no significant environmental problems.
The bigger issue, according to developers and the state, which is joining the lawsuit, is to resolve who controls development of natural resources in a state whose revenues are heavily dependent on mining, oil and gas.
"The state of Alaska has stated that this ordinance is unenforceable as a matter of law and will not withstand the legal challenge that continues in Alaska’s Superior court next month. We agree and will continue our legal challenge," Mike Heatwole, Pebble Partnership vice president, said in a statement. He did not return phone calls seeking additional comment.
Superior Court Judge John Suddock cleared the initiative to proceed to a vote before considering whether the initiative is legally permissible, but will take the matter up again in his courtroom on Nov. 7. The conflict could well end up before the Alaska Supreme Court.
Opponents of the mine include environmental and fishing groups around the country who say they are trying to save a fishing resource more valuable than gold from a state that has laid out the welcome mat to corporate resource extraction.
The battle has already ranged far beyond Alaska. In Seattle, where much of the fishing fleet steams north to Bristol Bay for salmon, several well-known restaurants have hosted fundraising events for the Pebble fight; big jewelers such as Tiffany's and Ben Bridge have said they won't sell gold extracted from Pebble.
On the other hand, there has been some strong support for the mine project in western Alaska because of the large number of jobs and other economic benefits it would bring.
"This vote is hard evidence of strong opposition to the mine in the region. Even if it didn't win by a landslide, for those people to be willing to vote and fight for creating a brand new law, it just shows the borough that, listen, you're not listening to the majority of your own people," said Anders Gustafson, executive director of the Renewable Resources Coalition, the Anchorage-based group that backed the Save Our Salmon initiative.
Some votes thrown out
Gustafson said the initiative would have passed by an even greater margin had a canvassing panel from the borough assembly not thrown out about two dozen votes on grounds that they did not meet the residency requirement.
"Half of them were on my board of directors," Gustafson said. "They argued they were not residents. One of them was born there, had a fishing lodge there, as did his father before him; he's obviously been there his entire life. But people travel," he said.
Gustafson said all the rejected residency ballots known to him were cast by people who were registered to vote in state and national elections only in the Lake and Peninsula Borough.
"They would throw it out on the pretense of, 'Well, I drove by their place in December and I didn't see smoke coming out of the chimney.' They would do a Google search on a person. They said, 'This person bought a fishing license somewhere else,' and the assembly would throw out their vote. I was absolutely aghast. I mean, it was shocking."
Cotten said the election was conducted entirely by mail. The canvassing board, he said, was forced to make difficult decisions about ballots that came in from all over the country. "If you get your mail outside of your borough and you send it back from outside of the borough, we're going to look at it a little closer," he said.
"One couple [whose ballots were thrown out] lives in Arkansas. Another person has a dental office in California. One guy said, 'I moved out and I sold my home. I'd like to live there, but I can't find work.' Well, I've never heard such an argument. How far does this go?"
The borough, he added, has not taken a position on the initiative -- and is almost sure to end up in court over it no matter which way it turns out.
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: To transport ore and equipment, the Pebble Mine would require a long road along Alaska's Pedro Bay, shown here, and Lake Iliamna, the state's largest body of fresh water, cutting through undeveloped forest and wetlands. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times