Twenty lawmakers and a regional Alaska Native corporation have jumped into the scuffle between the governor and several groups over a Canadian company’s potential investment in the Pebble copper and gold prospect.
The dispute goes back to July, when Gov. Mike Dunleavy wrote a letter saying he would support a decision by the president of Wheaton Precious Metals to invest in Pebble, after anti-Pebble groups wrote a letter to the company discouraging its investment.
Opponents of the Pebble prospect say it threatens the valuable Bristol Bay salmon fishery in Southwest Alaska. Potential mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership has applied with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a key permit to build the project. Pebble maintains it can develop the mine safely, without threatening the fishery.
Pebble has been talking with companies about potentially investing in the project, said Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesman.
Sixteen Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, signed the letter dated Monday. Two Republicans and two independents, including House Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, an independent, also signed it.
It was sent Monday to Randy Smallwood, Wheaton president, said Austin Baird, a spokesman with the Alaska House Majority.
The lawmakers said the governor’s July 30 letter to Smallwood “misrepresents the ease with which the state might permit the proposed Pebble Mine, and the reception it is likely to receive from those living in the region.”
Alaskans will “vigorously” defend the Bristol Bay region’s fisheries, the legislators said. The lawmakers refuse to jeopardize that “sustainable" resource for an “economically dubious project," they said.
Dunleavy, who has not stated a position on Pebble, told Smallwood in his letter that the state would stand by his company’s potential investment to help Pebble complete the permitting phase. The governor said he was standing up for a fair permitting process, without interference from project opponents.
“I am committed to making that happen, and once appropriate permits are granted, I am equally committed to removing obstacles that would hinder immediate construction,” he wrote.
The governor’s office said in a statement on Monday: "While some in the Legislature may disagree, Governor Dunleavy and a large number of Alaskans believe projects should be allowed to follow a fair and transparent permitting process; one that is rigorous, merit-based and prescribed by law.
Governor Dunleavy will continue to underscore the damaging effects a preemptive veto would have on future development projects in Alaska – for even the most basic type of development and activity on state, Native and private lands," said the statement, sent by Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for the governor.
The “preemptive veto” refers to a 2014 proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency, withdrawn by the agency in July, that the governor and Alaska’s Congressional delegation opposed. The pre-emptive veto could have halted the project before state and federal agencies could review development plans.
Bristol Bay Native Corp., a regional Alaska Native corporation based in the region where the mine would be built, also sent a letter to Smallwood, dated Aug. 29.
The governor "characterized the opposition to the Pebble project as coming solely from national environmental groups. That is inaccurate,” wrote BBNC president Jason Metrokin.
The governor had told Wheaton that the July 24 letter that sparked the dispute came from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is based in New York City.
The eight groups that signed that letter were mostly Alaska-based organizations, including United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. That letter recommended Smallwood contact the Natural Resources Defense Council if he’d like to discuss the project.
“There is strong opposition to the project within Bristol Bay and across Alaska,” Metrokin wrote.