Pebble group tries to block opponents' land use initiative

August 3, 2011

Anchorage Daily News

Mary Pemberton

Mining companies that want to develop a huge copper and gold mine near wild sockeye salmon streams are using the courts in an attempt to silence opposition to the Pebble Mine, an opponent said Tuesday.

At issue is an initiative that will go before Lake and Peninsula Borough voters in October. The ballot measure, if approved, would not allow the planning commission to issue a development permit to any large resource extraction activity that would have a significant adverse impact on salmon-producing streams.

Superior Court Judge John Suddock last month put the case on hold until Nov. 7, a month after the local election, to look further at the legal issues.

As first reported by KTUU-TV, the Pebble Limited Partnership now wants the state's highest court to review a lower court ruling that allowed the initiative to go before voters.

George Jacko, director of Alaskans for Bristol Bay and a sponsor of the "Save Our Salmon" ballot initiative, said the mining companies wanting to develop the minerals deposit in Southwest Alaska repeatedly have said if the locals don't want the mine, it won't be built.

"No one believes that," Jacko told The Associated Press. "This appeal is a blatant attempt by the Pebble Partnership to silence the voices of Lake and Peninsula Borough residents."

Federal, state and local permits would be needed to develop the mine.

Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership, said it wants the court to look at the legal issues before the election. They include the belief that the initiative is attempting to bypass the established process set up under state law requiring the involvement of local planning commissions when making land use decisions.

"We view that as unlawful," he said. "Those protections are in place for forming reasoned land use decisions in our state."

He pointed out that the mine site is on state land approved for mineral exploration.

"They would halt the borough residents' right to vote," Scott Kendall, a lawyer representing the initiative sponsors, said when asked about the request to have the Alaska Supreme Court review the case. Kendall said the high court wants to hear by noon today from those opposed to the expedited review.

The Pebble Limited Partnership is raising a "grab bag" of objections in hopes of stopping the initiative, including the claim that it is a zoning initiative, Kendall said. The initiative is not about zoning but about general land use borough-wide, he said.

Heatwole said the partnership has not yet presented its development plan for the mine to borough residents to evaluate, and therefore has not asked anyone to support a mine development plan for Pebble. What it wants is for Alaskans to support its right to develop and present a plan, he said.

Lake Iliamna, the largest producer of sockeye salmon in the world, lies directly below the Pebble Mine site. Jacko said many local residents who are employed in commercial fishing oppose development of the mine.

Heatwole said Pebble can be developed without hurting salmon streams.

"We do believe we have local support," he said.

Northern Dynasty Minerals is partnering with Anglo American PLC, to develop the Pebble Mine. They have budgeted $91 million this year to create a detailed project description and proposal for developing the deposit. The world-class deposit has the potential to produce 53 billion pounds of copper, 50 million ounces of gold and 2.8 billion pounds of molybdenum over nearly eight decades, according to one assessment.

from Anchorage Daily News