By Margaret Bauman
Published: October 26, 2012
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An initiative application filed Oct. 22 with the state of Alaska seeks to amend state statutes to require legislative approval for development of large-scale metallic sulfide mines within the Bristol Bay Fisheries Refuge.

It’s the latest shot fired in the battle over whether or not large-scale mines, including the proposed Pebble mine, should be built at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed.

The proposed initiative essentially mirrors Senate Bill 152, which would allow legislative oversight of the permitting of sulfide mines in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Refuge. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell has 60 days to either certify the initiative application or reject it.

Assuming it is certified, backers of the initiative would then have until January 2014 to gather the required number of signatures to put the initiative on the statewide ballot in the fall of 2014.

Should the Legislature pass a measure authorizing legislative approval of large-scale mines in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Refuge before that time, no ballot measure would be needed.

IN 2008, a similar citizens initiative, the Alaska Clean Water Initiative, also known as Ballot Measure 4, was voted down in a hotly contested effort, with over $10 million in advertising dollars spent by proponent and opponents of the measure.

Proponents of the mine point to the economic potential of such a mine, which they maintain can operate in harmony with the world largest sockeye salmon fishery, and the demand for copper, in particular.

Opponents maintain that the potential for adverse affects of such mining on fishing and hunting habitat are too great a risk, and are seeking legislative protection. Commercial and sport fishing in the region are both multi-million dollar industries, and subsistence fishing is critical to a number of area residents.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency meanwhile is completing its final Bristol Bay watershed assessment, which will determine whether the region’s rich fisheries resources need further protection.

The application package for the “Bristol Bay Forever” initiative, signed by some 150 Alaskans, was delivered to the Anchorage offices of Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. It was accompanied by a cover letter noting that in 1972 the Alaska Legislature acknowledged the statewide economic and cultural importance of the Bristol Bay region by establishing the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve, to protect salmon in the region from potential adverse effects of oil and gas development.

The letter notes the importance of salmon in providing food and employment for many Alaskans, as well as statewide economic benefits. That legislation requires that any proposed oil and gas development within the reserve obtain a legislative finding that such development will not constitute a danger to the fishery.

The Bristol Bay Forever” initiative backers want these same protections applied to large-scale mining activities.

Like the 1972 legislation, the proposed initiative does not appropriate any resource, nor prohibit any activity. It simply requires that the Legislature review any proposed large-scale mining activities and approve them only if they will not endanger the fishery within the reserve.

It bears mentioning, wrote Timothy McKeever, an attorney for the sponsoring committee, that the purpose and methods of the initiative are nearly identical to those of the statute that established the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. “As that prior statute has stood for four decades, there can be no legitimate argument that the initiative is in any way unlawful. During the legal review, we also believe it is important that the Department of Law be mindful of its duty to ‘narrowly interpret the subject matter limitations that the Alaska Constitution places on initiatives,” McKeever wrote in the cover letter to Treadwell.

While the initiative application does not specifically name the Pebble mine, it defines the large-scale metallic sulfide mining operation as “a specific mining proposal to extract metals, including gold and copper, from sulfide-bearing rock and that would directly disturb 640 or more acres of land.

Members of the initiative sponsor committee include Christina Salmon, a Bristol Bay Native Corp. shareholder and local leader; Mark Niver, a Bristol Bay commercial fisheries permit holder and North Slope oil field worker; and John Holman, owner/operator of a commercial fishing lodge in Bristol Bay.

The initiative as proposed notes that metallic sulfide mining has the potential to adversely affect salmon resources because by products of such mining can adversely alter the chemistry of waters inhabited by salmon, and have serious consequences on the survival of individual salmon populations, subspecies and species.

“It is a matter of statewide public interest to ensure that the world’s greatest wild salmon producing watersheds are protected form pollution and toxic materials and particularly effects uniquely associated with large-scale metallic sulfide mining,” the initiative petition says.

You can reach Margaret Bauman with comments and suggestions