A civil trial that began Monday calls into question the legality of much of the work done over the past two decades to study the massive Pebble copper and gold prospect in Southwest Alaska.
The state Superior Court case pits state regulators against a coalition of nine village Native corporations opposed to the proposed mine in the Bristol Bay region, plus several others, including Vic Fischer, a state constitutional delegate, and Bella Hammond, the widow of former Gov. Jay Hammond.
The case, filed last year, is one of a number of legal challenges to Pebble that have erupted in the past few years as the project gets closer to reality. If the state loses in court, some work on Pebble could be delayed, perhaps for several years, the companies contend.
Pebble is controversial among village residents, salmon fishermen and hunters due to its size and its location in the headwaters of two of the rivers that feed Bristol Bay's massive salmon runs. They are worried a mine would damage their livelihood and their food source.
But Pebble's supporters say a mine could be a long-term source of jobs in the impoverished region. The companies involved say the mining debate is premature because they haven't proposed anything yet.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs say that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources broke state law and violated the Alaska Constitution in several ways. Mainly, they argue that before issuing mining exploration permits for Pebble, the department failed to seek public input and did not examine the environmental consequences of drilling.
The plaintiffs' case centers on Pebble but the plaintiffs say the state's permitting system -- at least for hardrock mineral exploration -- is biased toward industry and against the public and needs a thorough review.
"The state has violated its duties," Nancy Wainwright, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth during opening statements Monday morning.
But state attorney Cam Leonard told Aarseth on Monday that the department is following standard practices and is mindful of its constitutional obligations. The DNR doesn't require a detailed public review of hardrock drilling permits because they involve only temporary use of state land and the drilling does not have significant environmental consequences, he said.
Wainwright said she intends to show at trial that the impacts of the drilling aren't temporary and that people who live in the region have been harmed.
Matthew Singer, an attorney for the Pebble Partnership, the two mining companies seeking to develop the prospect, told Aarseth that the drilling has no lasting impact on the tundra. He described how the mining companies avoid harming the tundra by bringing in all of their equipment -- including drill rigs -- by helicopter. The companies have extracted thousands of samples of subsurface rock to analyze the mineral content. After that, the drill site has been plugged with cement and the land revegetated, he said.
"Their case is based on hypotheticals," Singer said.
The legal arguments are relatively simple but the trial will be crammed with technical reports and mind-numbing detail. Tables behind the attorneys are crowded with file boxes filled with drilling records, maps and other technical documents.
The plaintiffs' attorneys brought their map expert, Stuart Smith, to the witness stand on Monday. Despite hours on the stand, he hasn't presented his findings yet.
Instead, the attorneys spent hours on Monday sorting through and quibbling about the technical data Smith used to develop a digital map of the Pebble project area.
The legal wrangling about the mapping data was scheduled to continue today.
The non-jury trial is scheduled to run for two weeks.