Questions raised about Bristol Bay mine initiative

JUNEAU — Questions were raised Tuesday about when the Legislature would have to get involved in authorizing a large-scale mine in the Bristol Bay region if a ballot initiative passes this November.

 

The initiative states that, in addition to permits and other authorizations required by law, a final authorization would be needed from the Legislature for any large-scale metallic sulfide mining operation within the watershed of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. That authorization would come in the form of a law finding the operation would not constitute a danger to the region’s world-class salmon fishery.

The measure would have implications for the massive proposed gold-and-copper project known as the Pebble Mine.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell raised the questions during a public hearing on the initiative that he oversaw. State law requires the lieutenant governor to hold public hearings around the state on initiatives.

Hearings are also being held on measures that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana and raise the state minimum wage. Before the hearing Tuesday, Treadwell said the minimum-wage proposal is the most straightforward of the three.

One of his goals with the hearings on initiatives is to build a record that includes the intent of the sponsors, mechanics of the proposals and what the public is thinking about them, particularly in the event of litigation.

Treadwell asked initiative supporter Anders Gustafson when lawmakers would get involved in weighing in on a large-scale mine project and what would happen if additional permits were needed after the Legislature acted.

Gustafson, executive director of the Renewable Resources Coalition, said the intent is for legislative involvement at the end of the permitting process, to allow for a review of the cumulative impacts of the fully defined project and an opportunity for further public comment. The intent is not to go back to the Legislature repeatedly for approval of smaller, more incidental permits, like a change in subgrade to a road, Gustafson said.

But he said that if there was a proposal to fundamentally change a project, that proposal would likely trigger a review by the Legislature. Gustafson added that disputes over major changes probably would ultimately be decided in a legal setting.

In an interview later, Gustafson said that there should be an extra layer of public review for a mine of the size of the Pebble Mine in a place like Bristol Bay. The initiative is not aimed at exploratory work, he said.

Jason Brune, president of the Alaska Miners Association, said the initiative would inject politics into the process and breed unpredictability that could affect future investment in the state. Although the initiative is focused on large-scaling mining in the Bristol Bay fisheries reserve, its scope could be expanded by lawmakers in the future, Brune said.

If supporters of the initiative lack confidence in the state’s permitting or bonding process, they should focus on making changes to it, he said.

The state Board of Fisheries in 2010 asked the Legislature to study permitting standards and environmental safeguards and take any steps deemed necessary to protect game and fish habitat in the area. Money was appropriated, but a study was never done.

Gustafson said Alaskans should be able to make changes in rules if needed to help protect the state’s resources.

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For more information on the public hearings held so far and planned: http://bit.ly/1uG8Dyi

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