Legislature's Pebble Mine study still awaits direction

Elizabeth Bluemink

Months after the funding was approved, state legislators still haven't decided how to proceed with a study of the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine.

The Legislative Council -- put in charge of the project -- remains in a muddle about what questions should be asked about Pebble. Some legislators aren't convinced a study is a good idea at this time.

If built, Pebble would be one of the country's biggest mines, employing hundreds of people for decades. But the project is hugely controversial among fishermen, Native villagers and environmentalists because of its massive size and its location in the headwaters of two of the five major rivers that feed Bristol Bay's world-class salmon runs.

Gov. Sean Parnell this year approved $750,000 for the proposed Pebble study after legislators inserted the funding in last year's nearly $3 billion capital spending budget. The line item calls for "an independent third-party scientific and multidisciplinary study of the potential large mine development" but it doesn't offer any other specifics.

House Speaker Mike Chenault said he thinks launching a study now might put "the cart before the horse" because the companies exploring Pebble haven't published any of their plans. Chenault, R-Nikiski, chaired a Legislative Council subcommittee hearing about the proposed study on Thursday in Anchorage.

But legislators who favor a study, including Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, and Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, believe that third-party scientists could bring some valuable insights to the debate over Pebble and make sure good questions are asked during the permitting process.

Austerman and others have suggested that the study be run by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The council publishes hundreds of research reports annually on behalf of local, state and national agencies.

But two business groups, the Alaska Miners Association and the Resource Development Council, have criticized the proposed study as ill-defined and unfair in its targeting of one mine.

Warren Muir, a division chief for the National Research Council, told Chenault during last week's hearing that the council is often brought in to referee "contentious" issues around the country because of its neutral stance.

It's not unusual for governments seeking a study to be uncertain of the scientific questions that need to be asked -- the research council can help the Legislative Council define the project, Muir said.

"It's probably more of an internal issue on our side," Chenault responded.

The subcommittee did not decide what to do about the proposed study on Thursday. Chenault said he would schedule another meeting.

The companies that hope to develop Pebble said they plan to publish a lengthy analysis of the current environmental conditions at the massive mineral prospect at the end of this year.

In the second half of 2011, the companies plan to publish a study assessing Pebble's technical and economic aspects and start applying for development permits.

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