Cleaner mining

Prop. 4 protects salmon areas from new mining pollution

August 24, 2008 

Ballot Measure 4 says no new, large-scale metal mines will be permitted to pollute streams or to dispose of mining wastes in a way that could harm humans or salmon spawning.

If voters approve it, Ballot Measure 4 will send a strong message to the Legislature and state government that Alaskans wants to keep salmon streams unpolluted.

We want mining in the state to continue and grow, but we want it done in an environmentally sound manner.

The initiative as written is not a work of art. It is vague in parts and that vagueness has lawyers quibbling about exactly what it means. Some wording in the measure will need to be cleaned up.

But even with its flaws, we urge voters in Tuesday's state election to approve it.

The Legislature is allowed to clarify the initiative with amendments right away, and make sure the new law works exactly as intended.

For example, the paragraph that exempts existing mines with all their permits from the new rules is giving heartburn to NANA Corp., a partner in the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska.

Red Dog is proposing to open a new pit. Is that covered by the exemption?

NANA and Red Dog are worried that it's not. Initiative backers say even if the grandfather rights didn't apply, Red Dog is not on a salmon spawning stream, and so its operations won't be covered.

But even so, the Legislature can tidy up the grandfather clause and remove any doubt that the initiative exempts existing mines.

Though the initiative would apply to all new mines that take up more than one square mile, its main target is clearly the Pebble mine prospect. Pebble is a huge copper and gold deposit in the Bristol Bay region. Bristol Bay is also the world's most productive sockeye salmon fishery.

Pebble, still just a proposal, seems on the face of it like an ill-conceived project. There is a high risk of pollution in the state's biggest salmon watershed. The mine, while not yet designed, is expected to produce billions of tons of tailings. The initiative wouldn't necessarily stop Pebble, but would require the mine to use much more protective measures that reduce the risk to Bristol Bay fisheries.

Both opponents and supporters of the initiative have made exaggerated claims. One side claims it will shut down mining throughout Alaska. The other side invokes former Gov. Frank Murkowski as a bogeyman who opened the way for mines to dump toxic wastes in salmon spawning areas. In fact, Murkowski failed to make any big rollback in pollution rules.

Put aside the exaggerations.

The truth is that the heart of the initiative is in the right place -- protecting Alaska's salmon fisheries against pollution from new mines.

The legal language in the measure needs fine-tuning. We know that. Voters should approve it, and hand the new law over to the Legislature to clean up the rough edges.

BOTTOM LINE: Yes to Ballot Measure 4, to keep big new mines from dirtying salmon streams.


Who's up Who's down

DOWN Gabrielle LeDoux: Somehow, Kodiak's GOP candidate for the U.S. House got lost between Mr. Bluster and Mr. Bland.

UP Department of Fish and Game: Public offices commission says distribution of predator control info was OK. But the timing ...

DOWN Department of Fish and Game: Sure, guys, killing 14 wolf pups before a predator-control vote was a stroke of PR genius. Did you keep the hides?

Mark Begich: Parking lot story resurfaces with $100,000 loss to city. Campaign rival calls for Assembly investigation. Assembly shrugs.

UP Mining measure foes: $9 million still in hand a few days before the vote. Can they spend it that fast?

DOWN Sen. Ted Stevens: Judge keeps trial in D.C. instead of Anchorage. What an insult! As if we couldn't give Uncle Ted a fair and impartial trial before we acquitted him.

Frank Bailey: Palin aide put on paid leave for "catch-my-drift" phone call to trooper lieutenant over Wooten business. More like paid vacation.

UP Ocean Rangers: Reluctant cruise operators relent, improve access for state's pollution monitors. Now, steady as she goes.

DOWN Anchorage consumers: Prices make biggest yearly jump in 20 years. Should have planted that victory garden in May.

UP Alaska consumers: First wave of rebate-reinforced PFD checks to arrive early, in less than three weeks. Residency has its privileges, especially in an election year.

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