Alaska judge hears arguments over Pebble Mine

ANCHORAGE — A state court judge has been asked to overturn a 2011 initiative that developers of the proposed Pebble Mine say is an attempt to kill the project.

The Save our Salmon initiative, passed by Lake and Peninsula Borough voters, bans large-scale resource extraction, including mining, that would destroy or degrade salmon habitat.

The Pebble Limited Partnership and the state have asked Judge John Suddock to strike down the initiative. They argue it wrongly elevates the borough’s role above the state’s role in overseeing natural resources, the Anchorage Daily News reported (http://bit.ly/14Nk6h6 ).

The state also has told Suddock the proposed Pebble Mine couldn’t be developed if the initiative stands.

“We’re not prohibiting mining in the borough. We’re prohibiting harm to salmon,” said Josh Van Gorkom, a lawyer representing the borough.

Suddock asked another lawyer if the intent of the initiative wasn’t to stop Pebble, saying “the operation of an open pit mine is incompatible with people in hip boots.”

Attorney Scott Kendall replied the initiative sponsors, George Jacko and Jackie Hobson, just wanted to “give salmon a seat at the table.”

The language of the initiative says the borough cannot approve a project that will harm salmon, Kendall said.

The Pebble Partnership has called the mine deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum over decades.

But it’s also at the headwaters of two rivers that produce a quarter of the world’s sockeye salmon.

Pebble Partnership lawyer Matthew Singer told Suddock that the company has spent nearly $500,000 and hasn’t yet applied for a development permit.

After the hearing, he said the initiative is unconstitutional because it usurps the Legislature’s ability to allocate resources among competing users. And he said Pebble also wants to protect salmon.

The state argues the minerals at issue are on state land, and belong to the state. Joanne Grace, an assistant attorney general, said the state constitution gives “exclusive management authority” over natural resources to the state.

She said the borough can’t control the development of state resources on state land.

Van Gorkom, the lawyer representing the borough, said this is an environmental regulation to protect salmon, and the borough has a right to do that.

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