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State sues to stop anti-Pebble 'Save our Salmon' initiative

Eric Christopher Adams

A widely expected lawsuit challenging the so-called Pebble mine referendum has been filed by the state of Alaska.

The "Save our Salmon" citizens initiative, passed earlier this month by Lake and Peninsula Borough voters in Southwest Alaska, was written by supporters to protect the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery -- one of the largest and most successful in the world -- by banning open-pit mining in waters that feed the bay's watershed. The initiative passed by a slim margin.

Questions of constitutionality plagued the initiative from the get-go and the state joined Pebble Partnership, a joint venture by London-based Anglo American and Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, in suing to halt a vote on "Save our Salmon."

The state Supreme Court allowed the vote to proceed, contending that without passage of the initiative, there wasn't anything to rule upon.

Months later and with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by pro- and anti-Pebble mine forces, Alaska Attorney General John Burns announced Friday that the local ordinance voters passed would nullify state permitting processes and, according to a Department of Law press statement, "tilt the constitutional balance" and legislative prerogative on developing Alaska's resources from the state Legislature toward municipal government.

The lawsuit announcement said, in part: 

The Alaska Constitution gives the Alaska Legislature the authority to determine how to develop resources for maximum use consistent with the public interest. It is therefore the state's duty to evaluate projects to determine whether they can be conducted in a way that serves the public interest, and if so, what safeguards to require. Under the Lake and Peninsula Borough ordinance, the state may never have that opportunity. While boroughs have limited power to regulate some of the activities associated with resource development, a small majority of voters in a local community cannot usurp the more comprehensive state authority and eliminate the entire state permitting process.

Reached Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for Pebble noted that the prospect sits on state land that's designated for mineral resource development.

"From the outset, the Pebble Partnership believed that the Lake & Peninsula Borough Save Our Salmon initiative was poorly worded and legally invalid. Alaska's robust and rigorous permitting system is designed to protect the state's natural resource, therefore, it is understandable that the state would object to a poorly worded ballot measure that usurps its comprehensive permitting authority," Nance Larsen said via prepared statement. 

Attorney General Burns added that the state's case should not be interpreted as support or opposition to the Pebble project.

"It is about upholding the state’s constitutional authority and responsibility to evaluate whether, on balance, development of Alaska’s resources is beneficial to all Alaskans. This administration has consistently maintained that the state will not sacrifice one resource for another," Burns said. "In the case of Pebble, we haven’t yet even considered the pros and cons of any development that may be proposed."

The Pebble Partnership still has to apply for dozens of state and federal permits in order to proceed with a mine near Lake Iliamna. Engineers and biologists working for the mine have told Alaska Dispatch that the project, if developed, could yield hundreds of billions of dollars (at today's prices) of gold, copper and molybdenum.

A state judge will get weigh in on the initiative's constitutionality Nov. 7.

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com