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Alaska's highest court hears Pebble case

Posted: December 19, 2013 - 1:11am

ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Supreme Court will decide if environmental groups and citizens, including a former state first lady and constitutional delegate, owe legal fees after losing a case challenging permits for the proposed Pebble Mine.

The justices also heard arguments Tuesday over whether the groups must disclose the source of the money needed to bring the challenge, the Anchorage Daily News reported (http://bit.ly/JFdded ). The justices did not immediately rule.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by a group including former Alaska first lady Bella Hammond and Alaska constitutional delegate Vic Fischer.

They sued the Alaska Department of Natural Resources in 2009, claiming the state was violating the state constitution by effectively disposing of lands without public notice or a finding that it was managing the land for the common good.

The Pebble Limited Partnership has proposed the Pebble Mine project near the headwaters of a world-premier salmon fishery in southwest Alaska. It joined the state in fighting the case and Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth ruled in their favor in 2011.

That ruling was appealed by Trustees for Alaska, an environmental public interest law firm that handled the case.

Trustees’ attorney Nancy Wainwright argued before the high court Tuesday that Pebble’s work was so extensive that it requires a full public process.

Laura Fox, an assistant attorney general representing the Department of Natural Resources, argued the Legislature had already determined that temporary permits do not trigger requirements for public notice or a finding that the work is in the public interest.

Retired Justice Warren Matthews, who is filling in on the court, asked if there was any downside to public notice.

Fox said the list of published notices would be long if each temporary permit was included.

Matthew Singer, a lawyer for the Pebble partnership, said temporary permits include conditions, and the state doesn’t just give them away. Companies must file an operations plan and the state inspects the work and reclamation after exploration, then issues reports on its findings, he said.

Wainwright, in arguing the permits should be revoked, said the state didn’t know how many bore holes Pebble had drilled until the lawsuit was filed, and that DNR didn’t know Pebble was taking in water from places not covered by a temporary permit.

Under Aarseth’s ruling, the state and Pebble sought to recover $962,500 in attorney fees and costs from the plaintiffs, who argue that being forced to pay the legal bills would be a hardship.

Pebble also wants to force the plaintiffs to reveal where the money for the lawsuit came from, and how much it cost.

The plaintiffs are asking the high court to find they are immune from having to pay attorney fees.

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