Pebble prospect's foes, fans testify at hearing

SENATE RESOURCES: Don't judge project yet, backers say.

February 28, 2009 

Alaska lawmakers this year are beginning to look deeper into the massive, controversial Pebble project.

The debate over Pebble involves a proposal to build one of the world's biggest hard-rock mines in the headwaters of the world's biggest sockeye salmon fishery. Many consider it a battle on the scale of the duel over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"It's an all or nothing question," Rick Halford, a former state Senate president who opposes Pebble, said in testimony Friday at a Senate Resources Committee hearing.

The committee held the hearing to get an update on Pebble from both proponents and foes.

The mineral prospect north of Iliamna, in Southwest Alaska, could hold metals worth hundreds of billions of dollars. It holds an estimated 72 billion pounds of copper, 94 million ounces of gold and 4.8 billion pounds of molybdenum.

The mining companies involved in developing Pebble told lawmakers Friday they are working on the most intensive environmental studies ever undertaken in Alaska. They are still a year away from completing that work, said John Shively, head of the Pebble Partnership.

The companies also need to figure out how to generate the same amount of power used by the city of Anchorage -- up to 600 megawatts -- in a remote area with no readily available energy supply, he said.

For now, the companies don't know if Pebble is a workable project, Shively said. The partnership planning to develop the project includes London mining giant Anglo American and the Canadian junior Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.

All they are asking for right now is for Alaskans to hold off making up their minds about Pebble, Shively said.

But the project's foes disagree: Now is the time to ensure that Southwest Alaska's fisheries are adequately protected, they told lawmakers Friday.

"What if there's a mistake at Pebble? What does that do to the rest of mining and resource extraction in Alaska?" said Brian Kraft, a Pebble opponent who owns a sportfishing lodge on the Naknek River, downstream of the Pebble project.

The foes of the mine include commercial and sport fishermen, downstream villages, environmentalists, sport lodge owners and hunters.

Friday's hearing didn't include any talk of specific legislation, but it set the stage for potential legislative action this year on Pebble-related matters. There is a bill, proposed by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, to ramp up taxes for major mines. Plus, the project's foes are considering floating a Pebble-related bill, they said.

Legislators should consider a smorgasbord of protective measures for Bristol Bay's fisheries before regulators get to the decision-making stage for the potential mine, the mine's opponents testified Friday.

Among their ideas: tighten state regulatory standards; tighten the protections for Bristol Bay fisheries; and set up a panel of scientific experts to decide if the mine can go forward or not.

Legislators quizzed Shively, state regulators and the project's foes during the hearing.

Several legislators said they wanted to know the worst-case scenario if there was an accident or spill at Pebble.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, asked a state official how dangerous it would be if a dam that stored potentially billions of tons of waste rock (and a smaller amount of water) breached due to a severe earthquake.

State regulations require that dams must be able to withstand the maximum earthquake that could occur where they are located, said Ed Fogels, of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

If a dam breached anyway, there are ways to design it to reduce the potential for contaminated water to get downstream, Fogels said. "You could store the dirty tailings way back from the face of the dam," he said.

After a University of Washington fisheries biologist, Daniel Schindler, testified about the potentially harmful effects of copper on salmon's sense of smell, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, asked him what percentage of the Bristol Bay watershed could end up being impacted by Pebble.

Schindler, who has worked in the region for a decade, said that it was "a very tough question" and it's important to specify what kind of scenario Wagoner was thinking of: routine operations or a catastrophic dam failure.

"Careful science" is needed to get a good assessment of how much of the region's watersheds and how many fish are vulnerable, Schindler said.


Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.

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