A bill adding legislative oversight to the process of permitting sulfide mines in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Refuge had its first hearing in Senate Commerce and Regional Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Sponsored by Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, testimony on the bill was evenly split between opponents and proponents with those supporting the Pebble Mine Project typically opposing the bill.
Opposition came from the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, among others.
The basic tenet of those who opposed the bill was Alaska’s regulatory process was up to the task, that legislative oversight adds uncertainty to the process and risks deadlocking legislators into indecision.
The committee did not have a quorum, however, Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla, and Sen. Donald Olson, D-Nome, queried those who testified.
French introduced his bill by saying the history of legislative oversight of oil and gas exploration and development in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve went back to Gov. Jay Hammond’s administration in 1972.
“We are in a sense finishing the work he began,” French said.
French said the Pebble issue is political with or without legislative oversight.
“Politics are going to be infused in this issue throughout its life,” he said. “How do we insure the public is in accord with the administration in something this vital?”
French said the Pebble Mine issue was brought home to him by fishermen in Sitka.
“We haven’t heard your position on the Pebble Mine down here in Sitka,” French said he was told. They told French one drop of mercury in one fish in Bristol Bay means Sitka fish are worth less.
“A tainted Alaska fish hurts all Alaska fishermen,” French said.
Olson, the committee’s chairman, asked about other sulfide mines in sensitive areas that this bill may affect.
“This is exactly where the slippery slope stops,” French said. The bill covers just the Bristol Bay reserve, he said.
Former Republican Sen. Rick Halford is a consultant with Trout Unlimited. He testified in favor of the bill.
Halford told the committee he had never opposed a mine before. However, the scale and location of the proposed Pebble Mine project makes this case unique.
“I do this at the risk of irritating lifelong friends from the other side,” Halford said.
Halford listed Greens Creek Mine near Juneau as an example of a hard-rock sulfide mine he supports and commends. Greens Creek, owned by Hecla Mining Co. has 1/300th the ore reserves as the Pebble project and is “very well operated,” Halford said.
“Greens Creek is a good example of an underground sulfide mine that works,” he said.
Halford said the bill represents a small step to protect the unique Bristol Bay fisheries and communities.
“It just brings it back to you,” Halford said to the legislators.
The remote location of the proposed site and its low-grade ore means the proposed sulfide mine must be “very, very big or nothing,” Halford said. The need to build 100 miles of road and pipeline to access the site means a “tremendous impact just to get to it,” Halford said.
As a comparison of size, Halford said the largest open pit sulfide mine in the U.S. is Bingham Canyon, Utah. The mine is a third the size of Pebble and located in a dry climate, Halford said. The mine has polluted the local water, he said.
“The suburbs of Salt Lake will be drinking bottled water for generations,” Halford said.
Halford said that in addition to passing SB 152, he would like to see an active on-site presence to police the Pebble Partnership’s exploration practices.
Menard asked Halford if the bill would inject more politics in the regulatory process.
“Politics is the way we do things,” Halford said. “It is the process by which we make decisions.” With legislative oversight there is executive branch politics, legislative and statewide politics.
“You left out one,” Menard said, “lobbyists.”
The bill, Halford said, would include the Legislature in the “biggest decision of western Alaska in the next century.”
Oil and gas exploration and permitting are already under legislative oversight in the Bristol Bay reserve.
“On-shore oil and gas is really going the right direction,” Halford said, using directional drilling to shrink its ecological footprint. Low-grade ore mining goes in the opposite direction, Halford said,
“Mining has become much more dangerous and much less lucrative than oil,” Halford said. Oil exploration has been “a good bet for the state of Alaska,” he said.
Halford said he would not support off-shore drilling in Bristol Bay.
In the area likely to be affected by the mine, between 70 percent and 80 percent of residents oppose the mine, he said.
Daniel Cheyette, associate general counsel, Natural Resources for the Bristol Bay Native Corp. said his organization supports legislative oversight.
“A vast majority of households in the Bristol Bay region rely on subsistence fishing for a large percentage of their food,” Cheyette said. Bristol Bay Native Corp. ”will not risk this crucial resource for the purpose of developing other resources,” Cheyette said.
Lisa Reimers, resident of Iliamna, said the mine is already benefitting her community. Iliamna natives, she said, do not live off of subsistence alone and many can no longer support families on commercial fishing. The project is providing the exploration jobs to help support Iliamna’s economy.
“If we don’t have an economy we’ll create our own cultural suicide in our community,” Reimers said.
If there is a problem with the regulatory process, the state should fix it, Reimers said, not introduce more politics to decision-making.
Alaska Peninsula Corp. chairman Tefron Angasan said his corporation opposes the bill because it threatens to violate its Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act rights. And would “directly threaten Native corporation investments and other companies that take enormous risk on mining projects,” Angasan said.
“The process should not be threatened by the expos facto actions of a politically motivated legislative body,” Angasan said.
The Alaska Chamber of Commerce supports a predictable and efficient permitting process, CEO Rachael Petro said. This bill takes away predictability, she said.
Senate Bill 152 was held in Community and Regional Affairs Committee. Testimony is scheduled to continue at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday.
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at email@example.com.