Prospects for Pebble Mine study uncertain

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2010

Gov. Sean Parnell said he wants the state to have the best information available as it evaluates the potential effects of developing a copper-and-gold prospect at Bristol Bay. But he stopped short of endorsing the third-party review that two lawmakers have requested, saying the permitting process is meant to elicit "the best data on all sides."

Earlier this year, the Board of Fisheries 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. Bristol Bay is home to a premier commercial sockeye salmon fishery.

Critics have said the mine's footprint could cover 15 square miles. The issue has ignited passions on all sides - and sparked debate about jobs and economic development in rural Alaska, the strength of the state's permitting process and whether some places are so special, they should be kept off limits to mining.

After a joint legislative hearing that included a critic of the proposed Pebble Mine and state and mine officials, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, asked the Legislative Council for funding for a third-party review.

"Decisions concerning the Pebble prospect will have everlasting consequences," the two wrote this week to Rep. John Harris, the Legislative Council chairman. "We must be sure we have given state agencies the guidance and tools they need to make the right determinations in this situation."

Parnell told reporters Thursday that he hadn't seen the request and wasn't sure it was necessary now. He said if his agencies needed better data for the permitting process he'd help them get that. But the permitting process is "supposed to bring out the best data from all sides," the governor said.

Interests supporting and opposing a mine moving forward are well funded and could also, potentially, provide the Department of Natural Resources or others with additional data, he said.

The head of a partnership behind the proposed mine has said the project could be in permitting early next year. That process could determine the size and feasibility of a mine.

Wielechowski said that timeline creates urgency for a study.

But Harris said in an interview Thursday that there's no money under the council's purview appropriated for a study. Such a request would need to go through the legislative process, which is now in its money-crunching last weeks, he said.

Assuming there is a reallocation of funds to support a study, Harris said the council - if it were given oversight of the funds - would still need to decide whether to move ahead with a study.

Over the last year, measures that would direct the council to enter a contract for a study haven't gained traction in the Legislature.

Wielechowski said he hoped to speak with Harris.

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