Under Anchorage lawmaker’s proposal, the Alaska Legislature would become a Pebble Mine watchdog

Members of the Alaska House’s special committee on fisheries hears testimony on House Bill 14, by Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, on Tuesday in the Capitol. (James Brooks | Juneau Empire)

A measure intended to add roadblocks in front of Pebble Mine got its first hearing Tuesday in the Alaska Legislature.

 

House Bill 14, proposed by Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, would require the Legislature to approve any permitting documents or authorizations for mines within the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve.

Pebble Mine, proposed for the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, is within the reserve.

Speaking to the House Special Committee on Fisheries, Josephson said his goal was to strengthen a ballot initiative passed by voters in 2014.

Ballot Initiative 4, approved by two-thirds of voters, gives the Legislature the final say on Pebble Mine and any other “large-scale metallic sulfide mines” considered for the fisheries reserve. Josephson’s bill would require the Legislature to approve each step of the permitting process, not just sign off at the end.

“This takes the intent of the initiative and makes it stronger. I’m confident it does that,” Josephson said.

Last year, Pebble Mine appeared to be dead. It had been abandoned by Rio Tinto and Anglo American, two of the world’s largest mining companies, and was fiercely opposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and fishing groups across Alaska.

The mine’s fortunes changed with the election of President Donald Trump, who is proposing to appoint an EPA director who favors “regulatory rollback.”

A mid-January analysis by Bloomberg reporter Natalie Obiko Pearson said the mine’s fortunes appeared to be on the upswing.

On Tuesday, Josephson said that if the EPA is no longer willing to be a watchdog, that duty will fall to Alaskans.

“Now, we can be the bulwark,” Josephson said.

The EPA’s preliminary reports about the mine, drafted during the administration of President Barack Obama, found that the mine’s construction would have significant effects on the Bristol Bay salmon run, one of the world’s largest.

“It’s going to rest upon our shoulders, not the federal government’s, to protect this fishery,” Josephson said.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, asked whether it made sense for the Legislature, an organization with limited mine permitting experience, to judge projects.

“This is the most important environmental fisheries decision in Alaska’s history, in my opinion. If there’s a little bit more effort involved in that, I’m OK with that,” Josephson said.

Speaking against the bill was Deantha Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.

She cautioned that the 2014 ballot initiative ─ and by extension Josephson’s bill ─ might be illegal because they could act as a legislative veto of a permitting decision made by the executive branch, which is led by the governor.

That could run afoul of the Alaska Constitution’s separation-of-powers provisions.

Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, agreed with Crockett’s assessment as he spoke to the committee by phone.

The bill was held in committee, and no additional hearings have yet been scheduled.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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