Alaska: a Pebble in the StreamsPublished by MAC on 2008-09-02
Last week, two announcements lifted Alaska into both national and international headlines.
The state's governor, Kathy Palin, was chosen by Senator John McCain as his conversative running-mate for the forthcoming presidential elections.
And, just three days earlier, Alaskan voters had gone to the polls to decide on several proposed legislative measures.
By far the most controversial was one that would have stopped metallic mining companies from discharging harmful pollutants into salmon streams and drinking water sources.
The measure failed, though by a fairly narrow margin.
The battle has raged for several months, and the stakes are very high.
Pebble, Alaska's biggest proposed new mine is a joint venture between Northern Dynasty and Anglo American, with Rio Tinto holding a minority share.
The lease area is claimed to be one of the richest untapped sources of copper, gold and molybdenum left on the planet.
But it's also located on Bristol Bay, one of the world's largest single habitat for sockeye salmon .
Not surprisingly, millions of dollars have been thrown into the fight by both sides -and it hasn't followed a classic "David versus Goliath" scenario.
Although it's scarcely surprising that the mining industry contributed more by way of campaign funds, at least US$ 3 million was provided to opponents by a local millionaire and a shady Republican group called "Americans for Job Security".
It's also widely recognised that the Measure 4 is badly worded - the main intent behind it being to close down the Pebble project once and for all.
However, balanced views taken by both Alaska's leading newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, and the New York Times, leave little doubt that the measure ought to have been passed, warts and all.
Alaska voters decide mining over fish
By MARY PEMBERTON,AP
27th August 2008
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Alaskans were given an option when voting for an initiative in their primary election: mining or fish.
They chose mining.
With more than 84 percent of votes tallied early Wednesday, the measure was declared dead with more than 57 percent of voters rejecting it.
The ballot measure would have imposed two water quality standards on any new large-scale mines in Alaska. Had it passed, it would have restricted large, new mines from releasing toxic pollutants into water that would adversely affect the health of humans or salmon.
Opponents of the initiative say if it had passed, it would have killed large-scale mining in Alaska.
Supporters said the initiative was needed to save wild salmon streams from the Pebble Mine, a huge copper and gold deposit poised for development near Bristol Bay.
Renee Limoge, spokeswoman for Alaskans Against the Mining Shutdown, said what voters understood was that the ballot measure would have affected other mines, not just Pebble.
"We are thrilled that Alaskan voters have spoken and they have made it clear that mining is part of our history in the state and part of our future," she said.
Opponents claimed that the initiative posed a serious threat to Alaska's economy. They say mining accounts for over 5,500 jobs and nearly $200 million a year in state and local tax revenues.
Supporters said the bigger threat is to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, which they say provides over 12,000 jobs and contributes over $250 million annually to Alaska's economy.
Canadian miner gains after Alaska choses gold over salmon
27th August 2008
VANCOUVER -- Shares in a Canadian miner with a potential blockbuster deposit in Alaska shot up Wednesday after that state's voters chose gold over salmon in a hotly debated citizen ballot initiative.
Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. gained more than 20% after Alaskans narrowly rejected the measure, which would have created potentially punishing new environmental restrictions on mining.
The small Vancouver-based company and global mining giant Anglo American are partners on the Pebble project, a massive copper-gold-molybdenum find that has stoked strident backlash from fishermen and lodge owners. They say its development will bring catastrophic consequences for some of the world's richest salmon runs in southeastern Alaska.
Their efforts produced the ballot measure, which was designed to strengthen environmental protection for salmon and aimed specifically at Pebble. The mining sector, which decried the measure as so vaguely worded that it jeopardized the development of all new mines, breathed a sigh of relief when it became clear on Tuesday night that 57% of voting Alaskans agreed.
"I didn't pop any corks or anything, but I'll tell you I was very pleased with the outcome. There's no question about that," said Northern Dynasty president and CEO Ron Thiessen, whose company is currently doing pre-feasibility work on Pebble and expects to seek permits in late 2009 or 2010.
"We think the existing [environmental] rules and regulations are very adequate, and I think this vote is an endorsement of that. So from my standpoint, I think this is good for Pebble."
Other Canadian companies also pursuing mining projects in Alaska include Barrick Gold Inc., Teck Cominco Ltd. and NovaGold Resources Inc., whose president and CEO said the outcome represents sustained confidence in Alaskan mining.
But he argued that there is no reason mines and fish can't co-exist.
"Salmon is an extremely important resource in Alaska and that certainly is recognized by the mining industry," he said. "Nobody wants to have bad water quality."
Yet even if a slim majority of voters agreed, the road to production for the Pebble project, in particular, is likely to be littered with opposition. Since it acquired the property in 2001, Mr. Thiessen says Northern Dynasty has focused more on socio-environmental issues than on either engineering or geology.
"We believe that the Pebble project has spent more money on environmental and socio-economic matters than pretty much any other industrial project in the world," said Mr. Thiessen. "Our intention is to get it right."
That spend is likely to continue, however, as the company wrangles with how to protect the fish and an opposition that has promised it has only just begun.
Northern Dynasty shares jumped 21% to $6.67 Wednesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange. NovaGold, Teck and Barrick also closed up slightly.
GOLD OR FISH FOR ALASKA?
Vote key to some Canadian miners
26th August 2008
VANCOUVER - The fortunes of several Canadian miners could ride on a state-wide ballot question that effectively asks Alaskans to choose today whether they want a future built on salmon or gold.
The citizen-backed measure is the most hotly contested initiative of its kind in the state's history, drawing more spending than any other public campaign, to date. Designed to strengthen the standards for mine activities near salmon-bearing streams, it pits mining companies and their native Alaskan supporters against environmental activists and the state's remarkably powerful fishing industry.
But standing in the wings are Canadians with mining stakes in the province -- including Teck Cominco Ltd., NovaGold Resources Inc., Barrick Gold Corp. and, most centrally, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the small Vancouver company whose work to develop the monstrous Pebble Project in a salmon-rich area triggered the high-latitude row.
The controversial ballot measure would ban the state from approving any large mining operation that releases any "measurable amount" of toxic pollutants "that will effect human health or welfare or any stage of the life cycle of salmon."
The measure was written with Pebble in mind, but opponents say it would create enough regulatory delay and uncertainty to cast a chill over all mining in the state.
"It's going to put a lot of risk not just on us but on other mining projects," said Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively.
"If indeed they can shut down Pebble with this, they clearly will shut down other mines also."
Discovered by Cominco Alaska Exploration in 1988, Pebble was snapped up by Northern Dynasty in 2001. Last July, as the deposit's terrific size became clear, Anglo American PLC took a 50% share in the project through a staged investment of US$1.4-billion.
Located 300 kilometres southwest of Anchorage, Pebble contains an inferred mineral resource of 91.6 billion pounds of copper, 84.6 million ounces of gold and 5.5 billion pounds of molybdenum -- enough to rank it as one of the world's largest deposits.
That it also happens to lie in the headwaters of rivers that are home to some of the world's richest salmon runs helps to explain the controversy. Eight-five per cent of the wild salmon on North American plates comes from Alaska. Nearly a third of that comes from Bristol Bay, the water body that Pebble's land drains into, and the fishing industry is Alaska's biggest private-sector employer.
Both the deposit and the fishery are so big--and, in their own way, so key to Alaska's very identity -"that it's kind of the giants squaring off," one observer said.
Supporters of the ballot measure, appended to a broader legislative vote, say extracting Pebble's riches will surely mean killing fish.
"There has never been in the world a mine built in an environment as economically significant as Bristol Bay, let alone as environmentally sensitive," said Bruce Switzer, the novelist and former mining executive who has led the ballot measure movement.
Ballot measure opponents say existing regulations already protect salmon, and though Pebble will not begin seeking permits until late 2009 at the earliest, Mr. Shively said it won't be built "unless we can protect the fish."
The larger question, however, is whether other mines will be built if the measure is passed. Teck Cominco is currently working to expand its Red Dog lead-zinc mine and Nova-Gold and Barrick are developing the huge gold deposit at Donlin Creek.
Karl Hanneman, the director of corporate affairs for Teck Cominco Alaska, said Teck hopes its work will be grandfathered in, but others may not be so lucky.
"New projects such as Donlin are significantly at risk because they're squarely in the sights of the measure and they may not be able to be exempted," Mr. Hanneman said.
A NovaGold spokesman declined to comment since, "who knows what legislation or other things could come out of [the ballot measure]."
Whether the measure will succeed remains, however, very much an open question, with a razor-thin margin expected between the two sides.
"Our poll shows us winning," said Mr. Switzer. "Their poll shows them winning."
GOVERNMENT OF ALASKA REVENUES (FISCAL 2007)
"No" votes take early lead in Measure 4 battle
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK
Anchorage Daily News
26th August 2008
The proposed law pitted salmon against mining in a multimillion-dollar ad war that inundated Alaskans for months, and confused many of them.
With about a third of the votes counted at press time, the Ballot Measure was losing. But the early returns were coming mostly from urban areas, with much of the rural vote still to be counted.
The ballot measure would enact a new law prohibiting mines from discharging harmful amounts of pollution into salmon streams and drinking water.
The Ballot Measure fight pitted the state's entire mining industry against the foes of the controversial Pebble copper and gold mine prospect in Southwest Alaska.
Though it is aimed squarely at Pebble, Measure 4's consequences for that project - and mining in Alaska, in general - remain unclear and may need to be ironed out in court if voters pass it.
Regulators said Measure 4 won't require any revisions to their regulations. Its proponents said the law is very simple: mines will not be allowed to pollute salmon streams.
But its opponents say it is rife with unclear language and would damage the state's entire mining industry, not just Pebble.
Some advocates of Measure 4 said that if the proposal loses, it might be viewed as approval by Alaskans of Pebble, making it harder for them to fight the prospect.
But many voters interviewed at polling places on Tuesday said they were confused about the proposed law's consequences and felt that the expensive ad war had muddied the issue.
$10 MILLION WAR
Fund-raising by the two sides for TV, radio, print, mail and other advertising had hit at least $10.6 million this week.
The two sides drafted volunteers on Election Day who vastly outnumbered the usual poster-waving candidate supporters at major intersections in Anchorage.
Others stood proudly wearing in their mining or commercial fishing gear. One guy beat on a drum while "Yes on 4" workers pumped signs and waved flags at passing drivers.
Interviewed at the polling stations, Anchorage voters said they felt caught in the middle of two Alaskan icons - fishing and mining.
"I thought it was excessive on both sides. It seemed like a big screaming match," said Seth Miraglia, a Bristol Bay gillnet fisherman who lives in Anchorage.
He said he voted "Yes," hoping that a Measure 4 victory would block Pebble, which he sees as a potential threat to his future income.
Anne Young, at Mears Middle School, said she grew up commercial fishing. Even though she isn't thrilled about Pebble, she voted against Measure 4. "It's kind of overdoing it because we already have laws in place to regulate mining," she said.
"I'm hoping I'm not making a mistake," she added.
"Clean water? Jobs? Tell me what it really says," said Charles Pilch, who voted at Mears Middle School.
Once he got in the booth and read the actual text, he decided to vote no.
The fight over Measure 4 turned into one of the most expensive political battles in state history.
Pebble foes, including Anchorage millionaire Bob Gillam and the Americans for Job Security - a secretive, Republican-oriented group in Virginia that doesn't identify its members - contributed nearly $3 million to back Measure 4.
Gillam disclosed giving $570,000. The Americans for Job Security disclosed giving $1.2 million to the "Yes" campaign, but it also funded "issue" ads in the form of mailers and radio spots. The cost of those ads was not disclosed. The state's mining industry and its supporters raised nearly $8 million to fight Measure 4.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
BALLOT MEASURE 4, CLEAN WATER: YES
Editoral: Anchorage Daily News
26th August 2008
Measure 4 sends a strong anti-pollution message about any new, large-scale metal mining in Alaska -- read Pebble. Measure 4 would prevent any new, large-scale mining from polluting streams or disposing of mining waste in any way that would harm humans or spawning salmon.
That's a message Alaskans should be willing to send.
The exemption for present mining operations is poorly drafted, but lawmakers can clear that up later. Vote yes.
Prop. 4 protects salmon areas from new mining pollution
Editorial, Anchorage Daily News
24th August 2008
Ballot Measure 4 says no new, large-scale metal mines will be permitted to pollute streams or to dispose of mining wastes in a way that could harm humans or salmon spawning.
If voters approve it, Ballot Measure 4 will send a strong message to the Legislature and state government that Alaskans wants to keep salmon streams unpolluted.
We want mining in the state to continue and grow, but we want it done in an environmentally sound manner.
The initiative as written is not a work of art. It is vague in parts and that vagueness has lawyers quibbling about exactly what it means. Some wording in the measure will need to be cleaned up.
But even with its flaws, we urge voters in Tuesday's state election to approve it.
The Legislature is allowed to clarify the initiative with amendments right away, and make sure the new law works exactly as intended.
For example, the paragraph that exempts existing mines with all their permits from the new rules is giving heartburn to NANA Corp., a partner in the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska.
Red Dog is proposing to open a new pit. Is that covered by the exemption? NANA and Red Dog are worried that it's not. Initiative backers say even if the grandfather rights didn't apply, Red Dog is not on a salmon spawning stream, and so its operations won't be covered.
But even so, the Legislature can tidy up the grandfather clause and remove any doubt that the initiative exempts existing mines.
Though the initiative would apply to all new mines that take up more than one square mile, its main target is clearly the Pebble mine prospect. Pebble is a huge copper and gold deposit in the Bristol Bay region. Bristol Bay is also the world's most productive sockeye salmon fishery.
Pebble, still just a proposal, seems on the face of it like an ill-conceived project. There is a high risk of pollution in the state's biggest salmon watershed. The mine, while not yet designed, is expected to produce billions of tons of tailings. The initiative wouldn't necessarily stop Pebble, but would require the mine to use much more protective measures that reduce the risk to Bristol Bay fisheries.
Both opponents and supporters of the initiative have made exaggerated claims.
One side claims it will shut down mining throughout Alaska. The other side invokes former Gov. Frank Murkowski as a bogeyman who opened the way for mines to dump toxic wastes in salmon spawning areas. In fact, Murkowski failed to make any big rollback in pollution rules.
Put aside the exaggerations.
The truth is that the heart of the initiative is in the right place -- protecting Alaska's salmon fisheries against pollution from new mines. The legal language in the measure needs fine-tuning. We know that. Voters should approve it, and hand the new law over to the Legislature to clean up the rough edges.
BOTTOM LINE: Yes to Ballot Measure 4, to keep big new mines from dirtying salmon streams.
Alaska Gets to Choose
Editorial, New York Times
25th August 2008
Most of the big salmon fisheries in Europe, the Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest are gone, victims of commercial development, overfishing and pollution. Now one of the greatest remaining runs is at risk from a giant gold and copper mine that would dominate the headwaters of Alaska's Bristol Bay, an extraordinarily rich fishery that produces about half of the wild salmon sold in North America.
On Tuesday, Alaskans will vote on an initiative intended to strengthen protections for those headwaters - the intricate system of lakes, streams and rivers where the salmon spawn and live. It deserves their overwhelming approval.
The initiative will not, as opponents have claimed, block all mines in Alaska, or even this one, known as the Pebble Mine. It simply states that any new mine cannot put toxic wastes in salmon-bearing streams. This, in turn, will require mining companies to be meticulously careful when designing and operating a mine.
Given the industry's history of environmental misrule, that can only be a good thing.
This has been a typical Alaskan struggle over natural resources, but more local than most. The debates over logging in the Tongass National Forest or drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have involved federal lands, engaging Congress and the White House. This fight largely involves state lands, but that has not made it any less fierce. Each side has spent millions to advertise their competing economic claims.
The pro-mining forces - including many legislators and a consortium of Canadian and British companies - claim that the mine could yield more than $300 billion in metals and hundreds of jobs for struggling rural Alaska. The pro-salmon forces say the mine could kill a fishing industry worth at least $300 million a year - and that while metals are finite, the salmon are a renewable resource. But they will only be renewable if the waters they inhabit are kept free of toxins.
This country has failed to protect the salmon, and the salmon industry, in New England and in California, Oregon and Washington. Alaskans now have a chance to save one of the last healthy wild salmon populations left. We hope they vote yes for the initiative.