Lake and Peninsula Borough voters have approved by fewer than 40 votes a ballot initiative meant to sidetrack the massive Pebble mine prospect.
Borough officials announced late Monday night that the initiative passed on a vote of 280 to 246.
The count follows a contentious election with heated disputes over the hugely controversial mine and what it would mean for the Bristol Bay region.
The initiative changes borough law to forbid the granting of permits for any big mine that would have a "significant adverse impact" on salmon streams.
Now it's headed to court. The Pebble Limited Partnership, the group seeking to develop the mine, has challenged its legality. So has Gov. Sean Parnell's attorney general, who argues it would be unenforceable because the Alaska Constitution gives the Legislature, not localities, authority over the development of state resources.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock allowed the election to proceed but said he'd sort out the legal issues when the case resumes Nov. 7.
Art Hackney, a media consultant who worked for the initiative campaign, said he believes the margin of victory would have been greater if it had been up-or-down vote on Pebble and taken in the entire Bristol Bay region. But he said he'll take a 53.2 percent victory on an initiative and a "win is a win."
Hackney said that Pebble can't claim the region supports the mine development. As long as the initiative stands "it means they can't have a large scale mineral extraction activity that kills salmon streams or degrades them," Hackney said.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, which includes Northern Dynasty Minerals and the mining giant Anglo American, put out a statement emphasizing the narrowness of the vote.
"This was a very close election and we are appreciative of the many voters from the Lake and Peninsula Borough who dedicated time to understand the true risks presented by this ill-conceived ordinance and the very real impacts it could have regionally. We are united with the community in the goal to protect the fishery, which is why we have dedicated significant time and energy to study the environment around the Pebble resource," said the statement from the Pebble group.
The Pebble Partnership said the measure won't survive the court challenge next month. Asked what it would mean for Pebble if the initiative did hold up in court, whether that would be the end for the mine, Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole replied it's "too early to speculate on that as the legal issues are very strong against the ordinance."
The "Save our Salmon" initiative campaign was bankrolled by Bob Gillam, a wealthy Anchorage businessman who owns a large home near the Pebble prospect and has written more than $400,000 in checks for the anti-Pebble effort since February. The campaign to defeat the ballot initiative was mostly funded by the Pebble Partnership.
Voting in the Lake and Peninsula Borough was done by mail with the ballots having to be postmarked by Oct. 4 in order to count. The borough canvassing board met Monday to do the tally.
It was a combative election, and both sides accused one another of fear-mongering and misleading the voters of the Southwest Alaska borough.
The anti-initiative campaign said the impact of the law change could go far beyond Pebble, and that it could interfere with the extraction of gravel and the development of local roads, airports, docks and power lines. Initiative backers called that a lie.
The initiative includes a purpose section that says it's aimed at protecting salmon habitat from large-scale mining. The wording of the new law forbids the borough from giving development permits for resource extraction activities that "could result in excavation, placement of fill, grading, removal and disturbance of the topsoil of more than 640 acres of land and will have a Significant Adverse Impact on existing anadromous waters."
Exploration work is under way for the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine that, if developed, would be North America's biggest open pit mine. The project is hugely controversial because it straddles streams that feed rich runs of red salmon, king salmon and rainbow trout.
Pebble advocates say mining and healthy fisheries can co-exist in the Bristol Bay area and that the project would bring much needed jobs to the region.Opponents say the mine could destroy the lucrative salmon runs the area has relied on for generations.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News