Empire editorial: Yes on Measure 4 for aquatic gold

Posted: Friday, August 22, 2008

As Alaskans consider Ballot Measure 4 on Tuesday, they must look to the future and think about gold.

Not the gold that would be removed from Pebble Mine by foreign corporations, Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals, for outsiders' profit, but the aquatic gold found in the precious salmon-rearing watershed of Bristol Bay, the thousands of fishing-related jobs, and the $250 million fishing industry that feeds Alaskans and their families.

Ballot Measure 4 would prohibit mines in excess of 640 acres from releasing toxic pollutants into water in a way that could adversely affect salmon or human health. It also would not allow the operations to store mining wastes that could release toxic pollutants into water.

Measure 4, in its simplest form, is about clean water, an issue with which few can argue. Its purpose is to limit the discharge of toxic pollutants, such as the deadly cyanide that would be produced by this massive open pit mine. The Pebble Mine, as proposed, would become the largest open pit mine in the Western Hemisphere.

Proponents of the ballot measure, such as Citizens for Clean Water, have been clear that a primary purpose of the initiative is to stop Pebble Mine. As one of the world's largest gold- and copper-extracting operations of its kind, Pebble Mine poses numerous unacceptable risks to the pristine region of Bristol Bay and statewide interests around it. Chief among concerns is that Pebble Mine would operate in an earthquake zone, which could lead to a devastating environmental catastrophe.

And with huge foreign corporations owning and operating Pebble, how, in the event of mishaps, could the state of Alaska ever hold them accountable? We could end up footing the bill for what could be the biggest environmental cleanup project in the nation's history, and that could easily cost billions. Given the poor record of the largest global mining operations, Alaskans must know the potential risks are enormous.

The gold and copper that would come out of the Pebble are in no way a matter of necessity or of national defense, where some risk could be accepted in the name of security or safety for Americans. This is more a matter of Alaska defending itself against a large-scale catastrophe created by a mining operation that simply isn't needed.

Opponents claim Measure 4 is a deceitful effort to derail large-scale mining throughout the state. Groups such as Alaskans Against the Mining Shutdown argue the ballot measure would cast a cloud of uncertainty over regulations of mines that are vitally important to the state. They also argue the measure would shut down the state's existing mines and would prevent any expansion of existing mines. That just isn't true, as the state's Supreme Court has recently ruled.

With Greens Creek Mine and the proposed Kensington Mine near the Juneau area, many local residents are understandably concerned about risking mining jobs in this community. Comparing Greens Creek and Kensington to the Pebble operation, however, is like comparing an aluminum skiff to a super tanker.

Section 3 of the ballot measure is clear and specific. The act "does not apply to existing large scale metallic mineral mining operations ... or to future operations of existing facilities at those sites." In addition, Alaskans must remember that no small or independent mines will be shut down by the measure.

Alaskans also should be aware that statewide, the fishing industry provides 54,000 jobs for Alaskans.

The fishing industry is the second largest taxpayer in the state - behind only the oil industry.

It also should be noted that the sport fishing industry in the Bristol Bay area brings in more than $60 million a year. These numbers are important to the economy of our state.

The fact is that even Pebble Mine - if it doesn't contaminate the waters of Bristol Bay, - would not be affected by Measure 4. That's hard to imagine, however, given the scope of that proposed project.

Alaskans Against the Mining Shutdown has tried to create a sense of panic over the possible economic impacts of the initiative. They've declared that mining provides more than 5,500 jobs and nearly $200 million in state and local tax revenues, along with billions of dollars in future income and investment.

Alaskans for Clean Water counter that commercial fishing already is a $250 million industry that affects 8,000 year-round jobs just in Bristol Bay (16,000 summertime jobs). And, the fishing industry - subsistence and commercial - has existed and will continue to exist in the Bristol Bay region for far longer than the Pebble Mine could ever hope to operate.

Some people ask, "Why do we need Measure 4 now? Hasn't the state always had adequate protection for its salmon?" The answer is, Alaska HAD strict salmon protection prior to the Murkowski administration. Gov. Frank Murkowski, however, made several changes by "executive order" that left Alaska salmon vulnerable to toxic mining discharge.

Ballot Measure 4 returns Alaska to a standard of salmon protection that had existed since statehood and under which all current mines were permitted.

The state of Alaska must not sell out the most precious of its natural resources and its residents for the sake of foreign profits.

In voting yes for Ballot Measure 4, Alaskans have a precious and rare opportunity to block outsiders from damaging the watershed of Bristol Bay, the richest salmon-spawning area on the planet, and thousands of fishing-related jobs.

Demanding clean water is the right thing for all of Alaska to do, and now is the time to do it. Vote yes on Ballot Measure 4.

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