Narrow thumbs down election result could undermine Pebble project

10-18-2011 // Manuel Quinones and Gabriel Nelson
This excerpt is from Greenwire (subscription required)

A tight vote in a local ballot initiative is threatening to derail southwestern Alaska's massive Pebble gold and copper mining project.

Unofficial results released last night by the Lake and Peninsula Borough show the "Save Our Salmon Initiative" aimed at stopping the mine project prevailing by 34 votes, 280-246.

The measure -- which calls for banning permits for mines that would have "a significant adverse impact" on salmon streams and rivers -- is another front in the fight over a mine that Pebble foes say could destroy a valuable wild salmon fishery in Bristol Bay.

"It's very easy to kill an initiative, it's very hard to pass one. So I consider it a victory and a victory of the people of the Lake and Peninsula Borough that it passed," Art Hackney, spokesman for the group Alaskans for Bristol Bay, told a local television station.

On the other side, the Pebble Limited Partnership -- Anglo American PLC and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. -- highlighted that the vote was close.

"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-concieved ordinance and the very real impacts it could have regionally," the company said in a statement.

But the Lake and Peninsula Borough, a 140-mile strip the size of West Virginia, does not include Dillingham and Naknek, the region's two population centers. Though they are each about 100 miles from the Pebble deposit, the fishing towns have become hotbeds of resistance to the project because of concerns that mining could harm the spawning streams for the salmon that commercial fishermen catch in Bristol Bay.

Opponents claim that almost 80 percent of the Bristol Bay region is against the Pebble project. "The fact that [the election] was close does not reflect the widespread opposition," Tony Turrini, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation in Alaska, said in an interview.

And the last poll by the Bristol Bay Native Corp., conducted in 2007, found that 70 percent of shareholders do not want the mine, even though the holding company doesn't have any commercial fishing assets. A new poll is in the works, said Jason Metrokin, the president and CEO of BBNC, during a recent interview.

The Pebble Partnership, with state support, was hoping to stop the vote from even taking place. superior court Judge John Suddock refused to block the election but has also not ruled on the underlying issues, including whether a borough ban can even be enforced.

"The state of Alaska has stated that this ordinance is unenforceable as a matter of law and will not withstand the legal challenge that continues in Alaska's superior court next month," the company said. "We agree and will continue our legal challenge for the reasons we have stated throughout this process. Our view remains that this change in the borough code is not legal."

But Turrini said the measure has a "reasonably good chance" of standing up in court. "There are some very good attorneys that have looked at this very closely and believe this is a valid initiative," he said.

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