The war over Ballot Measure 4 has been reduced to slogans.
Vote "Yes" to stop Pebble.
Vote "No" to save the state's mining industry.
The two sides don't agree on what the proposed law would do. They don't even agree on the plain meaning of sentences contained in the proposed law.
Generally speaking, the ads on both sides have overstated the consequences of Measure 4, the proposed law that goes before Alaska voters next week.
For example, the proposed law probably wouldn't block the giant Pebble copper and gold mine prospect in Southwest Alaska.
And though it might create some new legal tangles for large mining projects, it probably wouldn't destroy the mining industry either.
To help voters sort through the spin, here is information on Measure 4 presented in question-and-answer form.
Q. What does Measure 4 say?
A. It would prohibit future metal mines with a footprint exceeding 1 square mile from damaging salmon streams or drinking water supplies with toxic pollution. But it wouldn't be a total ban on mining discharges. The proposed law would prohibit releasing toxic pollutants "in a measurable amount that will (affect) human health or any stage of the life cycle of salmon."
Mine operators could not build roads, dig tunnels, process ore or dispose of rock waste in a way that would pollute salmon streams or drinking water.
Measure 4 doesn't specify the concentrations of pollutants that are harmful to human health and salmon, and it doesn't specify how to judge whether certain mining activities are too harmful.
It says that its requirements would not apply to mines that have already received "all required federal, state and local permits."
Q. How is that different from current laws?
A. Not much, state regulators say. They say they would not need to change their rules for mines or create new water-quality standards if the measure passes because the rules already accomplish what Measure 4 requires. They say the state's rules already accomplish what Measure 4 requires. The rules prohibit mines and other companies from putting harmful amounts of pollutants into streams.
That's not as clear cut as it sounds. Many companies violate pollution permits some of the time. And regulators routinely exempt companies from one or more water-quality standards if they decide the increased pollution won't be harmful.
But the regulators say passage of Ballot Measure 4 might prompt a new legal review.
A judge could order new regulations imposing permitting obstacles for new mines and making it more difficult to expand existing mines, such as the Red Dog zinc and lead mine near Kotzebue, according to regulators.
"It's like looking at a crystal ball right now," said Victoria Clark, an Anchorage attorney for Trustees for Alaska, a law firm that assists environmental groups, villages and others on legal issues involving environmental laws.
"The mining side might litigate if they don't like how it comes out. The other side might as well," she said.
"Until the judge rules on it, you don't know what the outcome is."
Q. What is its political impact?
A. Even if it doesn't create any new rules, Measure 4 poses a fundamental question:
Are the state's current rules stringent enough to prevent the serious damage from large-scale mining that has occurred elsewhere in the country and the world?
Some proponents of a "Yes" vote said that if Measure 4 loses, the companies conducting the Pebble mine exploration project will have won a key public opinion battle.
Pebble executives disagree. They say the big test for public acceptance of the potential copper and gold mine won't come until later.
"People are going to make up their minds about Pebble when we go to permitting," said John Shively, chief executive of the Pebble Partnership, the company set up by two firms to explore and study the mineral prospect.
He's not sure whether passage would block or change development plans for Pebble.
Pebble, in Southwest Alaska, is one of the largest copper-gold deposits in the world and is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, based on current estimates. The sheer scale of that wealth provides incentive to make a challenging project work.
Concern about Pebble's potential environmental impacts is a driving factor in the "Yes vote" campaign.
The opponents' major concern is Pebble's location at the headwaters of two of the five major rivers that feed Bristol Bay's world-class salmon fisheries.
The salmon fisheries are the heart of the Bristol Bay region's economy.
Q. Are any metal mines in Alaska bigger than a square mile?
A. Yes. The Red Dog mine, the Rock Creek/Big Hurrah gold mine complex, and two gold mines near Fairbanks: Fort Knox and Pogo.
Q. Would it shut down any of these mines?
A. Not if the state and the sponsors' interpretation of the initiative prevails.
The sponsors of Measure 4 inserted a "grandfather clause" that says the law would not apply to mines that already have "all their permits."
On the other hand, the Alaska Department of Law says that if judges force the state to adopt stricter regulations, the grandfather clause will not protect those mines when they apply for new permits or try to renew old ones. The proposed law would apply to those mines if it passes, regulators say.
Q. If voters approve the law, what happens next?
A.. State regulators say that nothing will happen unless someone files a lawsuit.
They and mining industry officials predict that Measure 4 will become a new legal tool to challenge mining permits in Alaska. That could delay mine development at minimum.
"Yes" vote proponents say the state is inadequately policing pollution and Measure 4 will simply make it clearer that mines are not allowed to harm salmon or drinking water.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
Public forum today
To participate in a public forum on Measure 4:
What: Alaska Common Ground is hosting a debate on Ballot Initiatives 3 and 4
When: 7-9:30 p.m. today
Where: Wilda Marston Theatre, at the Loussac Library, 3600 Denali St., Anchorage
Additional details: The debate on Measure 4 will begin at 8:15 p.m. Each panelist will give a short presentation and answer questions from the other panelist and the audience.