In just two weeks, fewer than a thousand voters in the remote Lake and Peninsula Borough could decide the fate of the gigantic Pebble mine prospect and sidetrack one of the most controversial development projects in Alaska history.
Wealthy interests on both sides are putting money into helping them make up their minds. There are charges of dishonest campaigning and questions about the role the Russian Orthodox Church is playing in the effort to support the initiative.
At issue is a ballot initiative that seeks to change borough law to forbid the granting of permits for any big mine that would have a "significant adverse impact" on salmon streams. The initiative sponsors are clear that it's aimed at Pebble.
The "Save our Salmon" initiative campaign is bankrolled by Bob Gillam, a wealthy Anchorage businessman who owns a large home near the Pebble prospect. The group's most recent campaign disclosures show that all of the $375,000 in contributions it received in the period from February until Sept. 2 came from Gillam.
The side that's trying to defeat the initiative calls itself "Defend Your Rights." Nearly all of its reported $115,885 in contributions came from the Pebble Limited Partnership, which includes Northern Dynasty Minerals and the mining giant Anglo American.
The Pebble total does not count the money that the mining group spent in its unsuccessful court effort to keep the initiative off the ballot. The Alaska Public Offices Commission ruled last week, after a complaint, that Pebble was not required to report those court expenses. Initiative supporters said the reported Gillam cash included costs related to the court fight.
There will likely be much more money spent before the initiative is decided in the Oct. 4 Lake and Peninsula Borough municipal election. There are 1,192 people formally registered to vote in the borough, the clerk said. Just 384 voted in last year's municipal election.
Exploration work is under way for the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine that, if developed, would be North America's biggest open pit mine.
The project is so controversial because it straddles streams that feed rich runs of red salmon, king salmon and rainbow trout. Pebble advocates say mining and fishing can co-exist in the Bristol Bay area and that the project would bring needed jobs. Opponents contend the mine could destroy the lucrative salmon runs the area has relied on for generations.
Mine opponents gathered more than enough signatures of borough residents to get the initiative on the ballot. Pebble went to court to challenge the initiative, but Superior Court Judge John Suddock decided to let the election proceed and sort out remaining legal issues afterwards.
Pebble appealed and Gov. Sean Parnell's attorney general intervened against the initiative, arguing that it would be unenforceable because the Alaska Constitution gives the Legislature and not local areas the authority over the state's natural resources.
But the Supreme Court declined to accept the case for review, meaning the Oct. 4 election will go on with court action to follow if it passes.
'It's Getting Intense'
The Bristol Bay Native Corp. last week sent out letters to its shareholders in the borough urging them to vote in the election. The letters, which went to more than 800 households, said the Pebble project "is too big, of the wrong type and in the wrong location. It poses unacceptable risks to salmon and other resources of the region."
The "Defend Your Rights" campaign to defeat the initiative is chaired by Greg Anelon of Newhalen. A former borough official, Anelon said the borough has a process in place to decide permits for development projects and the initiative would "take that right away."
He said the election is generating a lot of tension and he was refused use of the tribal community center in Nondalton when he wanted to have his say.
"It's gettting intense," Anelon said.
Father Michael Oleksa, chancellor of the Alaska Diocese of the Russian Orthodox church, has been active in supporting the initiative. He was featured in a full-page ad in the Bristol Bay Times in August, saying that this generation would profit from the mine but that the land and environment will be "disrupted and destroyed forever after."
Oleksa's involvement has generated some controversy. A long email he sent in April 2010 to Bishop Benjamin Peterson of San Francisco, interim leader of the Alaska diocese, was somehow obtained and then leaked to multiple media organizations.
Oleksa wrote in the email about meeting anti-Pebble financier Gillam, saying that Gillam reached out because of the church's resolution that the waters it considers sacred should not be polluted. Oleksa noted in the email that Gillam has the resources to fight the mine. (He described Gillam as a "billionaire, one of the richest men in the USA, an investment banker and broker a real Madoff who owns eight airplanes, several homes and millions of dollars in stock.")
Oleksa wrote that he would ask Gillam to provide a plane and pilot so that clergy could celebrate the "Great Blessing of Water" in remote villages. (Video from that trip, which included Bishop Peterson, was then subsequently used in an anti-Pebble ad.)
"I also foresee that, if we remain in close association with Mr. Gillam and we want, let us suppose, to build a church in Anchorage, he would loan us funds at a very low interest rate and would donate generously to our project. Perhaps we could interest him in buying some land for us, or supporting an assisted living complex for our elders," Oleksa wrote in the email.
Oleksa charged Friday that someone had hacked into his email and obtained what was supposed to be a private message. "I have never received one cent of donation or honorarium from Mr. Gillam. He and the Orthodox Church in Alaska oppose the Pebble mine as potentially destructive of the subsistence way of life and probably a danger to the ecosystem we bless annually and consider sacred," he said. "The fact that a very rich man may want, someday to support any nonprofit or any church is not unusual, immoral, unethical, illegal or unexpected. But we have absolutely no agreement or understanding that he will ever contribute anything to our work," Oleksa said.
Art Hackney, a media consultant who is working for the initiative campaign, said the Pebble advocates are out spreading lies. He pointed to a campaign mailer which claims the initiative says "STOP to Everything" and could apply to any major development, including roads, airports, docks and power lines.
"Pure scare tactics," he said.
'NOT WELL CRAFTED'
The purpose section of the initiative says it is to protect salmon habitat from large-scale mining. The law change that would be made by the initiative says it would forbid the Lake and Peninsula Borough from giving development permits for resource extraction activities that "could result in excavation, placement of fill, grading, removal and disturbance of the topsoil of more than 640 acres of land and will have a Significant Adverse Impact on existing anadromous waters."
Anelon, chair of the "Defend Your Rights" group fighting the initiative, defended the assertion that roads, docks and power lines could be impacted. He said the initiative is broad enough that it could limit extraction of gravel for projects.
"It's very vague, the language of the (initiative) is very vague," he said.
Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said "it's our view that any large project is going to have some disturbance of topsoil and require fill material and would probably require gravel, especially if it's a road or an airport, an intertie or something like that. And when you get into that you're going to have some resource extraction for that material."
"The initiative is not well crafted --as we have articulated in our court challenge -- and major changes to land use issues are better discussed through the normal local or legislative process so issues can be fully vetted," Heatwole said.
Reach Sean Cockerham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.