State regulators violated the Alaska Constitution when they approved exploration permits for the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine without allowing the public to weigh in first, according to a civil lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The suit was filed in Anchorage Superior Court by a coalition of eight Bristol Bay Native village corporations, former Alaska first lady Bella Hammond, state constitutional convention delegate Victor Fischer and several residents of Southwest Alaska villages.
The plaintiffs say a judge should throw out the exploration and temporary water-use permits for Pebble, a massive and controversial prospect in Southwest Alaska. They also want the judge to invalidate the state's permitting system for hard-rock mining exploration and block state regulators from issuing new permits for Pebble until the Legislature adopts a new permit system for mineral exploration.
The plaintiffs asked the court to halt exploration at Pebble until a judge makes a final ruling in the suit.
A state regulator on Wednesday said that contrary to the lawsuit's claims, the state is not required to gather public comments before granting permits for mineral exploration and water usage.
The Pebble Partnership, a coalition of mining companies trying to develop the project, said it is reviewing its legal options and might ask a judge to allow it to intervene in the lawsuit. The partnership is comprised of London-based mining giant Anglo American and British Columbia-based mining firm Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
If a judge decides to halt exploration at Pebble this year, it would harm the partnership's employees who live in Southwest Alaska villages, where jobs are already scarce, said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the partnership.
WILDLIFE IMPACTS?No final decisions have been made on whether to develop Pebble, but its backers say that the proposed mine would create hundreds of jobs for up to 50 years.
The project's critics say developing Pebble is a bad idea because of its location near the headwaters of two of the five rivers that support Bristol Bay's rich salmon fisheries. Nunamta Aulukestai, the coalition of village corporations in the lawsuit, is concerned about Pebble's long-term consequences for the fisheries, said Bobby Andrew, a Nunamta spokesman.
"It is beyond belief to me that a mining effort is happening in this area," said Hammond, in her filing in the lawsuit. She is the widow of former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond, who died in 2005, and has lived at their Lake Clark homestead, northeast of the Pebble prospect, for more than 20 years.
The permits challenged in the lawsuit were approved by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. They allow the Pebble Partnership to drill hundreds of holes in the ground and consume up to 32 million gallons of water per year from nearby streams and ponds.
Since 2002, the companies involved in the Pebble project say they have drilled more than 829 holes in the ground to discover the extent of the deposit.
Some of the village residents who joined the case contend that the exploration has already harmed wildlife -- causing caribou to flee the area, for example. The mining companies and state regulators say they see no evidence of that.
The DNR inspects the Pebble site about once a month while drilling is under way and it hasn't discovered any significant problems, said Tom Crafford, a large-mine coordinator for DNR.
One of the plaintiffs who lives in Nondalton, a village located roughly 15 miles east of the Pebble prospect, said in the court papers that he began seeing fewer and fewer animals in the area in 2002 or 2003, when Northern Dynasty began to ramp up its drilling, blasting and helicopter flights to the prospect.
"Now, I don't see game tracks or animals except for a few squirrels and ptarmigan. I do not see moose, caribou or bear in that area anymore," said the plaintiff, Ricky Delkittie.
Not everyone in the region agrees. Lisa Reimers, general manager of an Iliamna-based firm that contracts with the Pebble Partnership, says that moose and caribou began disappearing from the area before exploration began. Iliamna is about 20 miles southeast of the Pebble prospect.
NO CHANCE TO COMMENT?
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim that the DNR violated Article 8 of the state's constitution -- dealing with development of natural resources -- in six different ways.
The two main allegations are that the DNR didn't determine whether exploration at Pebble was in the public interest and granted the permits without giving the public a chance to weigh in.
Article 8 says that the state's natural resources development policy is to encourage such development "by making (natural resources) available for maximum use consistent with the public interest."
The case is being handled by Trustees for Alaska, an Anchorage environmental law firm.
DNR's position, however, is that consulting with the public before approving mineral exploration permits and temporary water-use permits is not required.
Crafford said his agency currently oversees about 400 or 500 mining-related permits that do not require public notices. A similar amount of temporary water-use permits have been granted to miners and other land developers, he said.
Public comments aren't required for such permits because the permits don't legally dispose of the state's land: the permits can be revoked by DNR at any time, he said.
The Pebble Partnership announced this year that will finalize its development plans for Pebble next year and will attempt to secure permits by 2013. It says it could begin mining as early as 2015.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK