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Another court case alleging Pebble conflicts embroils Bristol Bay officials

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times

The fight over the proposed Pebble mine project, envisioned as one of the world’s biggest gold and copper mines -- which also happens to be near the world’s largest sockeye salmon run -- ratcheted up a notch last week with a lawsuit filed against the mayor and a local Lake and Peninsula Borough assembly member.

In the Bristol Bay region of rural southwest Alaska, the mining project has pitted villager against villager, pro-development group against environmental group, and seen other grassroots efforts get involved. One of the most powerful churches in rural Alaska, the Orthodox Church, has tumbled into the debate.

The suit is just the latest salvo in a debate full of them.

The suit, filed in Superior Court in Dillingham, the hub city in the area, was filed by a borough assembly member and four anti-Pebble activists.

Alaska money manager and anti-Pebble crusader Bob Gillam, who owns a sprawling home in the area and has been involved in past suits regarding Pebble, couldn’t be reached for comment. One of the groups that he founded to fight the mine, Alaskans for Bristol Bay, is not involved, said spokesman Art Hackney.

However, the borough’s response has been to place the blame on Gillam, calling it an “orchestrated attack against the integrity of hard-working residents of Lake and Peninsula Borough.”

Among other things, the suit alleges that Glen Alsworth, Sr., mayor of the borough, and borough Assemblywoman Sue Anelon both failed to disclose their financial relationship with Pebble Partnership while voting on issues that would affect the mine.

Both Alsworth and Anelon are up for re-election in October.

Specifically, the suit alleges that through various business activities over the years, Alsworth received $375,000 from the Pebble Partnership -- the mining partnership between London-based Anglo American and Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals. The suit also contends that Anelon received $400,000 for work she does through a business that contracts with Pebble.

It says they not only failed to report some of the income on their public offices forms, they also voted on issues that would affect Pebble.

According to a relative, Anelon is traveling and could not be reached.

In an interview, Alsworth said that the allegations are patently false. “My wife, who read the press release announcing the suit, said that it should be in the Guinness Book of World Records” for the number of lies it told, he said.

Alsworth said that apart from a letter he sent in 2006 in support of the exploration phase of the project, a resolution in support of it, and a request to deny one of the companies involved water permit rights in 2007, he hasn’t voted on substantive issues involving Pebble. If he did, he said, he would declare a conflict of interest.

The Pebble Partnership is expected to apply for approval to complete a pre-feasibility study by the end of this year, which will be presented to Pebble’s board. If board members bless the project, Pebble will apply with state, federal and local agencies for more than 67 permits needed before work can proceed on the mine.

Both Alsworth and Anelon have said that they want to wait to see what the study shows before making a judgment on the mine.

Others fear that once permitting begins, it would be more difficult, if not impossible, to stop construction of the mine. If it’s going to be stopped, the thinking goes, it should be done now.

Anelon does not work directly for Pebble. She does, however, work for Iliamna Development Corp., which was founded in 2004 and services some of the exploration work at the Pebble deposit.

Alsworth owns Lake Clark Air, which often flies Pebble employees back and forth from Anchorage and around the surrounding areas.

The suit also alleges that Alsworth failed to disclose trips he made on Pebble’s dime and failed to declare a conflict of interest regarding his company’s charges to the borough school district to fly the school board to meetings.

For his part, Alsworth said that the trips he made to visit other mines both in and out of the country were paid for by the borough. As to the school district allegations, he said that he votes up and down for the district budget, not individual travel expenses.

“There’s no conflict when there’s not a direct tie,” he said.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission, the agency charged with disclosure, has in the past warned Alsworth about full disclosure on his forms.

The mine has been controversial since miners discovered copper at the site in the late 1980s. Shortly thereafter, gold was discovered. As exploration continued, so did the estimated riches in the ground. Now, estimates are about 100 million ounces of gold and more than 80 billion pounds of copper are under the surface, some of the largest deposits in the world. A big mine will be required to extract those resources. How big or exactly what type of mine is still being studied.

That big mine would sit at the headwaters of the most prolific sockeye salmon run in the world. Many in the area fear that a spill could ruin the area’s economic and subsistence mainstay.

Others want Pebble’s permits to go through a public process. Lake and Peninsula Borough Manager Lamar Cotten said that the attempts to try to stop the permits, such as the current lawsuit, soak up precious resources from a cash-strapped area and pit neighbor against neighbor. 

“Where in Alaska’s history have we seen something like what’s happened here, where groups have gone to war against members of a community because they are neutral on a project?” Cotten said.

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com