Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 1:19 PM on Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Measure aimed at Pebble narrowly passes, 280-246

Morris News Service - Alaska

Voters in the Lake and Peninsula Borough of southwest Alaska narrowly passed a ballot initiative that attempts to block the large Pebble copper/gold mine planned by Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals, officials of the Lake and Peninsula Borough announced late Monday.

Voters in 17 borough communities returned 526 ballots in the Oct. 4 election conducted by mail, but the ballots weren't counted until Monday. According to the unofficial election results, 280 ballots were cast in favor of a "Save Our Salmon" ballot proposition, and 246 ballots were cast against it.

The borough mailed 1,192 ballots to registered voters, borough clerk Kate Conley said. Results of the election will be certified Oct. 24, Conley said, but there could be challenges.

Even with the initiative approved, legal challenges by the state of Alaska and the mining companies will continue in state court. Alaska Superior Judge John Suddock had put a challenge to the initiative on hold until Nov. 7, and with the vote now held the legal proceedings will get under way.

If it is developed, Pebble could be a combination underground and surface mine, said Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, a joint-venture company formed by Anglo American and Northern Dynasty.

The mine has sparked a sharp local controversy. A major concern of opponents is that the mine and its tailings storage could result in contamination of local streams which flow into rivers where salmon spawn.

The Bristol Bay region is one of the world's largest commercial and sports salmon fisheries with annual harvests of salmon that range between 20 million and 40 million fish.

Heatwole said the project, if it is developed, will be subject to strict state and federal regulatory controls. The mine would be located in an area that would affect only a few streams, he said, and not major river systems that largely support a rich salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, which is to the southeast of the mine.

Under the ballot proposition, which was put forth by local opponents of the Pebble project, any mine that affects salmon streams and is larger than 640 acres would be banned. State of Alaska officials argue it is illegal for a municipality to block development of a project on state-owned lands where the project is located, and have filed suit over the ballot initiative, along with the Pebble Partnership.

In a statement, the Pebble Partnership said, "This was a very close election and we are appreciative of the many voters from the Lake and Peninsula Borough who dedicated time to understand the true risks presented by this ill-conceived ordinance and the very real impacts it could have regionally."

"The State of Alaska has stated that this ordinance is unenforceable as a matter of law and will not withstand the legal challenge that continues in Alaska's Superior Court next month. We agree and will continue our legal challenge for the reasons we have stated throughout this process," the statement said.

Supporters of the initiative urged Anglo American to drop the legal challenges.

"Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll has repeatedly claimed the company will not proceed in communities that are opposed to mine development," said Lake and Peninsula Borough resident Jackie Hobson in a statement. "Local residents have made their opposition to the development of the Pebble Mine crystal clear with the passage of the SOS Initiative. We hope that Ms. Carroll and Anglo American keep their promise and let the voice of local Alaskans stand unchallenged."

In a statement, Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen said his company and the partnership remain committed to preserving the Southwest Alaska fisheries, but, "Unfortunately, this initiative would also halt economic development throughout the Lake and Peninsula Borough, and represents yet another misuse of Alaska's democratic processes by paid opponents of the Pebble Project, whose goal is to stop the project before it receives comprehensive and objective review by federal and state regulators.

"What's most important is that the rule of law in Alaska and the United States is clear and reliable, such that this unconstitutional attempt by narrow self-interests to restrict economic development in a region the size of South Carolina will not stand. We believe the State of Alaska's constitutional obligation to manage natural resources on its land for the benefit of all Alaskans will ultimately be acknowledged by the courts."

The Pebble Partnership statement said, "Voters in the Lake and Peninsula Borough have been subjected to a prolonged advertising campaign of fear-mongering and misinformation about the Pebble project. We believe this has done a disservice to the people of Southwest Alaska and we will continue our efforts to share our perspective that Pebble can be done safely to co-exist with clean water, healthy fisheries and traditional ways of life, while generating decades of economic and social benefits for the people of the region."

Exploration and engineering work has meanwhile continued on the Pebble project with about $90 million being spent in 2011 on drilling and technical work, Heatwole said. A pre-feasibility study for the mine is expected to be completed in the third quarter of 2012, and late this year the results of several years of environmental baseline studies will be made available to state and federal agencies, he said.

Last month, a Alaska Superior Court judge rejected challenges by Pebble opponents that alleged the state exploratory permit regime was unconstitutional and stated there was no evidence of harm to the environment after 20 years of exploration at the site.

Separately, Northern Dynasty is soliciting offers to purchase its 50 percent share of the project. The company, based in Vancouver, B.C., is largely an exploration company that specializes in finding and developing projects and then bringing in partners.

Pebble was originally discovered by Cominco in the mid-1980s but was later purchased by Northern Dynasty, which then brought in Anglo American as a partner. Northern Dynasty has always indicated its intention to eventually sell its share of Pebble.