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Sponsor: Pebble bill aims to protect reputation of Alaska salmon

Opponents say bill will add legislative whim to regulatory process

Posted: February 26, 2012 - 12:13am

Imagine the headline “Federal Government warns pregnant women should avoid all salmon from the Bristol Bay region due to mercury contamination.” Would consumers distinguish Bristol Bay salmon from Prince William Sound salmon from Sitka salmon in a market in Seattle or a restaurant in Boston?

This is the question Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, says spurred him to sponsor a bill to add the deliberation of the state Legislature to the decision-making process of whether to permit a mine in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve.

Hidden behind a blizzard of oil tax legislation and committee hearings, French’s Senate Bill 152 is about to get its first hearing. French is the bill’s sole sponsor.

The bill would require legislative approval of large mines, 640 acres and above, located in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. An example of the type of mine that could be affected by the legislation is the controversial Pebble Mine Project.

French said his impetus to write the bill came from Pebble opponents who commercially fish and feared bad news for any Alaska-caught fish is bad new for all Alaska fish.

A mine doesn’t need to harm all fish to hurt Alaska’s fishing industry, he said. A single report of mercury in any of Alaska’s fish could damage years of thoughtful marketing of all of Alaska’s seafood, French said.

“Alaskan fish would be tainted in the eyes of worldwide consumers,” French said. “I saw their point and the risk that Pebble posed to the state.”

In this scenario a decision made to build a mine in one area may have an impact statewide.

Therefore “legislators representing communities from across the state should weigh in,” French said. “These mines pose significant risks and have a bad track record worldwide. The Legislature may well decide to approve the mine. But the process should be exacting.”

The legislature already has the authority to limit oil and gas exploration and development in the Reserve by resolution. A permit can be withheld if the body finds the entry will “constitute a danger to the fishery,” French said in an email interview. SB 152 would extend this oversight to the mining industry.

“This would have to be completed before the issuance of an authorization, license, permit, or approval of a plan of operation that could affect water in or flowing into or over the reserve,” according to French’s sponsor statement.

This oversight is limited to state lands, of which the reserve is one.

The Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve was created in 1972. That year the Legislature “determined that a heightened level of protection was needed for the Bristol Bay fisheries and acted by designating the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve in order to protect the longstanding and valuable commercial, subsistence, and sport fishing in the area,” according to Alaska state statute.

In 2009, House Bill 242 attempted to increase the “protection of wild salmon, wildlife, water, and other resources in or near the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve” in regards to “large-scale mining in the headwaters of the Reserve,” according to the bill. Two years earlier, House Bill 134, sponsored by Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, would have stopped a person from polluting or altering the water or the beds of rivers and streams within the Reserve.

Opponents of Pebble Mine, a large mine currently proposed in the Reserve, say Alaska’s regulatory system is not geared up for a project of that scale — one possible version of the project could result in a 4,000-foot-deep open pit, miles across. However, the Pebble Limited Partnership has not yet released a definitive plan for the mine, making it difficult to determine how large the project could be. Pebble backers have said they hope to make available in fiscal year 2013.

Opponents of French’s bill say the senator is trying to add politics into regulation. The bill allows the Legislature to apply its subjectivity to Alaska’s economic future and jeopardizes the predictability businesses need, they say.

An email sent out to people on a mass Alaska State Chamber of Commerce email list said French was “playing politics with Alaska’s resources” and the bill “essentially usurps the permitting authority of state agencies.” The Chamber said it fears the bill “would restrict mining throughout the Bristol Bay region regardless of land status.” Alaska’s regulatory structure is already rigorous, open to the public and predictable enough for business to make long-term plans, the email states.

“Leaving land management and resource development to the subjectivity of a particular legislature will negatively affect Alaska’s business climate by taking away the predictability of the process,” the email read. “If there is a problem with Alaska’s existing permitting structure, let’s fix it rather than subjecting Alaska’s economic future to the subjectivity of a particular legislature.”

Senate Bill 152 was referred to Community and Regional Affairs and Resources Committees. It has its first hearing on at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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