ANCHORAGE — The state of Alaska and developers of the proposed Pebble Mine are seeking $1 million in attorney fees from mine foes who unsuccessfully sued over the public’s right to know about mine exploration work.
The lawsuit was filed in July 2009 by individuals, including former state Sen. Vic Fischer, who helped write the Alaska Constitution, and former First Lady Bella Hammond, widow of former Gov. Jay Hammond. Plaintiffs also included Bristol Bay-area tribal entities and their sister village corporations.
They claimed the state Department of Natural Resources erred by issuing temporary permits for exploration to the Pebble Ltd. Partnership and had in effect disposed of state lands without public notice or a finding that it was managing the land for the common good.
Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth rejected the claim after a 10-day trial. In a 154-page ruling, Aarseth said Pebble’s activities were designed for minimal disruption and the land could be restored. An appeal is now before the Alaska Supreme Court.
Under state law, the state and Pebble, which joined the lawsuit to help defend the permit system, can recover fees. Pebble attorney Matt Singer said the public interest environmental firm Trustees for Alaska had used heavy tactics in the case, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
“When I reference scorched earth, I mean that it shouldn’t require more than a million dollars of state funds or company funds to resolve a dispute about temporary use permits, and that very few entities could afford to do business in this state if they faced this level of legal acrimony just to conduct exploration,” Singer said.
The proposed copper and gold mine is along the headwaters of two rivers that sustain Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. Hammond’s home is in Port Alsworth about 20 miles from the proposed mine. “People have a right to speak out when there’s bad stuff going on,” she said. “This is my home and always will be. I think I have the right to protest.”
Fischer said the push for legal fees may be an effort to intimidate.
“It was a public interest lawsuit and my presumption was that the issue of fees would never even come up,” he said. “I was actually appalled. So far as I am concerned, this whole effort is to try and stymie any kind of public-interest litigation.”
Fee recovery hinges in part on whether plaintiffs had a financial interest in the lawsuit. Pebble representatives have sought tax returns and other financial information.
“They wanted my tax returns from so many years back,” Hammond said. “It was just kind of an insult.”
“As a matter of principle, it’s none of their business,” Fischer said.
Challenges over legal fees and the permit case will be heard Dec. 17.