JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A proposed ballot initiative would require legislative approval for a large-scale mine in the Bristol Bay region.
The "Bristol Bay Forever" initiative application was sent to Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell for review earlier this week.
In the application packet, attorney Tim McKeever wrote that the Legislature in 1972 acknowledged the region's cultural and economic importance by establishing the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve to protect salmon from the impact of oil and gas development.
Under the 1972 measure, the Legislature can only approve any oil and gas development proposed within the reserve as long as it does not endanger the fishery. McKeever said the proposed initiative merely takes these protections and applies them to large-scale mining activity.
The proposal would require legislative approval for a "large-scale metallic sulfide mining operation," defined as a specific mining proposal to extract metals including gold and copper from sulfide-bearing rock and directly disturb 640 acres of land or more. The proposal does not specifically name the contentious Pebble Mine project, but it would almost certainly have implications for it.
McKeever said in an interview that the purpose behind the proposed initiative is not to block the Pebble Mine but to ensure that any mining in the reserve area is subject to legislative approval. He said he didn't know of any other such mining activities in the region.
McKeever, in the packet, identified members of the initiative sponsor committee are Christina Salmon, a Bristol Bay Native Corp. shareholder; Mark Niver, a Bristol Bay permit holder and oil field worker on Alaska's North Slope; and John Holman, who runs a commercial fishing lodge.
The proposed Pebble Mine is a massive copper and gold prospect near the headwaters of the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, and for years it's been the subject of an intense public relations battle. The Pebble Limited Partnership, the group behind the project, has called the deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.
Supporters of the project say it would bring much-needed jobs to economically depressed rural Alaska. Opponents fear it will change the landscape in the region and a way of life.
The partnership has yet to move into the permitting phase or formally submit a mine plan.
Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble partnership, said Alaska has a rigorous, science-based permitting process followed by developers as they make investment decisions.
"When you start attempting to change those rules and start to politicize the process, that has far-reaching implications for other companies looking to invest in the state," he said Friday.
State Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, introduced a bill similar to the proposed initiative earlier this year, but it went nowhere.
A legislative attorney, asked whether the bill was in conflict with the state Constitution, identified some potential concerns in a February 2012 memo. For example, attorney Donald Bullock Jr. said the bill could be challenged as violating the prohibition against local and special legislation.
He also said that if mineral rights were acquired and the state then takes those or imposes such strict permitting requirements that a developer is denied all economically feasible use of those rights, the state may have to pay "just compensation" to the owner of those rights.
McKeever, in his letter to Treadwell, said the proposed initiative doesn't violate the constitution by making an appropriation or enacting local and special legislation.
"The Initiative's protection of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve — home of the world's largest and most vital wild salmon runs — is certainly a matter of statewide interest," he wrote. "And the Initiative's requirement that the Legislature approve any large-scale metallic mining project in the Reserve bears a fair and substantial relationship to protecting that interest."
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