ANCHORAGE - A lawsuit filed Wednesday in Anchorage Superior Court seeks to stop development at the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska, saying the state's Department of Natural Resources violated the Alaska Constitution by granting permits allowing exploration.
Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. has teamed up with mining company Anglo American in a 50-50 partnership to develop the mine, situated near some of the world's most productive wild salmon streams.
Exploration indicates that Pebble is a world-class minerals deposit, containing an estimated hundreds of billions of dollars worth of copper, gold and molybdenum, according to the companies.
In the lawsuit, an Alaska Native organization and several Bristol Bay area residents accuse the department of issuing permits while failing to consider whether the mine is in the public's interest.
"We have to protect this resource we have survived on for a thousand years or more," said Bobby Andrew, a spokesman for a group that represents eight Alaska Native corporations.
The agency also is accused of failing to give meaningful notice about exploration plans at Pebble and providing the public a real opportunity to respond. The civil lawsuit makes six separate claims under the state Constitution and seeks a preliminary injunction until a final court decision.
"We feel that we've been conducting our permitting process in a legal and appropriately protective manner," said Tom Crafford, an agency large-mine coordinator handling Pebble.
Exploration activities at Pebble are having a serious impact on water and wildlife, Andrew said at a news conference in Anchorage. The department has neglected a legal and moral obligation to protect the area's subsistence resources, he said.
John Shively, chief executive officer of the Pebble Partnership, said the mining companies have gone well beyond the minimum requirements at Pebble.
"I think from our perspective we believe we followed all the rules and regulations that have served the mining industry well in this state," he said.
Plaintiffs include former first lady Bella Hammond and delegate to the Constitutional Convention Victor Fischer.
"It is beyond belief to me that a mining effort is happening in this area," Hammond said in a statement included in the lawsuit.
The agency has failed on numerous levels, dating back two decades, said Steve Cotton, executive director of Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law firm representing plaintiffs.
Cotton - standing in front of easels displaying photos of mud-filled mining pits that are among the lawsuit's 114 exhibits - said the agency's own records are convincing evidence of the adverse impacts exploration is having on state land and water at Pebble.
The Department of Natural Resources granted permits for 2009-2010 allowing for 425 bore holes and 320 test pits and 2,000 feet of seismic line, he said. Water use permits allow tens of millions of gallons of water be withdrawn from creeks and streams. Helicopters at the site can fly around the clock, he said.
Over the years, the department has approved permits for approximately 1,200 bore holes, Cotton said.
"That is a lot of impact," he said.
Cotton accused the state of permitting Pebble as if it was a miner with a mule and a pick ax disturbing a bit of rock. That is far from the truth, he said.
"This is in essence industrial-scale activity," Cotton said.
The lawsuit asks the court for a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from granting or extending permits on mining claims held by the Pebble Limited Partnership. Cotton said he did not know when the court would take up the matter.