Our view: Pebble vote

Project foes win this round, but EPA may cast decisive ballot

October 18, 2011 

What we know from the vote on the Save Our Salmon initiative is that a modest majority of Lake and Peninsula Borough voters oppose the Pebble Partnership's plans for a gold, copper and molybdenum mine in Western Alaska.

The Oct. 4 vote boiled down to a local referendum on the mine project. Voters approved a law that would ban any mining project of 640 acres or more that adversely affected salmon streams in the borough.

The Pebble Partnership, headed by Anglo-American, earlier sued to prevent a vote. The state of Alaska joined in the suit, arguing that the initiative is illegal because a local government cannot pre-empt the state's authority to permit activity on state land.

A judge refused to block the vote, but will take up the legal and state constitutional questions in November.

Allowing the vote was the right decision, and one based on precedence. Alaska courts generally -- though not always -- have given a wide latitude to initiatives so voters have a chance to express the popular will, fully expecting to take up legal challenges later.

Voters can do much by initiative in Alaska, but not everything. The initiative process cannot be used to appropriate money or amend the Constitution, for example.

In this case, there's an unresolved legal challenge, which is why Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock said he'd take up the case after the vote.

So what we have for sure is a borough vote on support or opposition to Pebble. Opponents won, and mine foes are saying so. Pebble and its backers are stressing the closeness of the fiercely contested vote -- 280-246 -- which attracted national and even international attention.

The borough vote won't be the last word. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to make a preliminary report on its Bristol Bay watershed assessment before the end of the year, one based on field work including the best available information from hydrology, seismology, topography, meteorology and any other discipline that applies; local knowledge in Dillingham and about six villages in the area; an examination of the development site and a vetting of proposed operations.

The EPA's aim is to figure out whether a major mining operation can co-exist with some of the headwaters of the largest remaining salmon fishery on earth.

The Pebble Partnership has a high bar to clear, and in the end the EPA's decision may well carry more weight than the borough vote. Either way, Alaska needs to get this one right.

BOTTOM LINE: Borough vote doesn't settle Pebble issue; EPA report might.

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