Prospect resolution draws testimony, heavy-hitting lobbyists

Prospect resolution draws testimony, heavy-hitting lobbyists

February 10, 2006

Anchorage Daily News (AK)

Pebble Mine hearing hot with legislative debate
Prospect resolution draws testimony, heavy-hitting lobbyists

February 11, 2006
Anchorage Daily News (AK)

Debate over the massive Pebble gold and copper prospect sizzled in Juneau on Friday as lawmakers heard testimony about planning for the proposed open-pit mine and as powerful lobbyists worked the hallways in full force.

The controversial mining prospect near Iliamna Lake has prompted people on both sides of the issue to roll out top lobbyists, including heavy hitters such as Joe Hayes, Ashley Reed and David Parish.

"It's a battle of the titans," said Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, co-chairman of the House Resources Committee. "The greatest lobbyists in the building are divided up on both sides."

Hayes and his company, Legislative Consultants Inc., registered this week with the Alaska Public Offices Commission as lobbyists for Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based firm hoping to develop Pebble. The contract with Hayes' firm is for $60,000, said Brooke Miles, executive director of APOC.

Northern Dynasty's chief operating officer, Bruce Jenkins, confirmed that Hayes and his associates, as well as Juneau lobbyist Jerry Reinwand, have stepped in to help Parish. Jim Palmer, a former BP executive and Anchorage consultant, is working on communications strategy and at least two other lobbyists are assisting from the Alaska Miners Association.

Their assignment is to defeat a new bipartisan resolution asking that state officials do more planning for the Pebble region and that the natural resources commissioner determine whether large-scale mining is appropriate for the biologically rich Bristol Bay watershed, home to the giant deposit and some of the world's biggest salmon and rainbow trout fisheries.

Ramras chaired a packed Resource's Committee hearing Friday on the Pebble resolution, which Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, introduced last week.

Nearly a dozen people spoke at the hearing, most of them supporting Hawker's measure. Dozens more waited their turn at legislative offices around the state.

Among those at the microphone in Juneau was Anchorage investment company president Bob Gillam, who has hired Reed to help get the resolution passed. Gillam, president of McKinley Capital Management, said that he is not anti-mining and that his firm manages "upwards of $1 billion in mining stocks."

But mines like the one Northern Dynasty has in mind "always pollute" the environment, he said.

Gillam also appeared in a professional-quality video shown at the hearing. He said a mine like Pebble located inside Yellowstone National Park would be a disaster. But even Yellowstone lacks the millions of wild salmon and trophy-size rainbow trout that the Pebble area boasts, he said.

No committee members questioned Gillam. But earlier in the hearing they peppered Hawker and his supporters with pointed and often skeptical-sounding barbs about why the resolution was needed.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak, asked Hawker whether management plans should be required for all developments.

Hawker said no, but he called Pebble a "mega-project" that warrants rigorous scientific review and an extensive public process.

She asked whether he doubted the Department of Natural Resources' ability to conduct a thorough and objective review.

Sometimes the administration doesn't do what it's charged with doing "unless we remind them," Hawker said.

The management plan he wants done for the Pebble area is not an added layer of scrutiny, but rather, "it's language straight out of our existing statutes," Hawker said.

Apparently that depends on how one interprets the law.

Natural Resources Commissioner Mike Menge said his department would not normally do a management plan for Pebble because most of the scientific, socio-economic and other questions Hawker wants answered will emerge during the mine permitting process when a host of state and federal agencies will scrutinize the plans.

"Every issue will be ground into talcum powder" and looked at from 1,000 different perspectives, Menge said.

The passionate statements swirling around the Pebble prospect are like "the faint roll of thunder" that will inevitably swell into a Kansas rainstorm, Menge said.

DNR will only be persuaded by the facts that emerge during the permitting process, he said, if Northern Dynasty or another company ever submits applications.

"Our responsibility is to be cold and dispassionate. And that's exactly what we'll do," Menge said.

It would cost the state an estimated $400,000 and take two years to complete a management plan for Pebble, he said.

Jeff Parker, an attorney for Trout Unlimited, said the state does management plans case by case, but they're not uncommon, especially when controversial projects arise. The state prepared one for Hatcher Pass in Mat-Su, for example, that addressed myriad issues including skiing, mining and real estate development, Parker said. The permitting process for a mine is distinct from a land management plan, which looks at a broader set of issues, he said.

Pebble is billed as North America's largest gold deposit and second-biggest copper deposit. Northern Dynasty is still exploring the prospect and has said it won't be ready to apply for permits until at least late next year, with production no earlier than 2011.

Jack Hobson, president of the Nondalton Tribal Council, said most residents of his village support the resolution because they don't trust what they've heard about Pebble. And people worry about how a mine could affect subsistence resources, he said.

"Everything out there depends on pure water," Hobson said.

The House Resources Committee will resume the hearing Monday.