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Southwest Alaska votes against Pebble Mine

Amanda Coyne

Residents who live in Lake and Peninsula Borough in Southwest Alaska voted for a ballot initiative targeted against the Pebble gold and copper mine. More than 600 ballots were cast, which the borough said was about a 57 percent turn-out. The vote was close. As it stood Monday evening, 280 had voted for the initiative, 246 voted against it and 17 ballots were contested. 

The ballots were mailed last month throughout the Lake and Peninsula Borough, an area of about 1600 people spread out over a region roughly the size of West Virginia. It will give local areas control over the mine's permitting process. The mine's future rests in obtaining dozens of permits. If the initiative is held up in court, permits could not be granted for any large-scale resource extraction activity-- including building roads and bridges that would assist in such extraction -- that would impact salmon-producing streams.

The initiative was organized by a group called Save Our Salmon, who opposes the mine, and was largely funded by Alaska resident Bob Gillam, one of Alaska's wealthiest residents who owns a private lodge in the area.

Pebble Limited Partnership – a partnership between Northern Dynasty Minerals and Anglo American PLC – has for years been eyeing a deposit that sits several miles from a couple of rural villages. It's the biggest undeveloped gold and copper deposit in the world, according to the geologists working to bring online a Pebble mine. It happens to be in the Bristol Bay watershed -- one of the largest commercial fisheries in the world. Critics say that if built, its prized salmon fishery downstream from the deposit would possibly be decimated. Proponents say a future Pebble mine would bring economic development to an impoverished region; that the ore can be mined responsibly and without impacting Bristol Bay's salmon or Pacific herring populations.

In a statement tonight, Pebble Partnership called the ordinance "ill conceived," and said that the change in the code is "not legal." 

"Voters in the Lake and Peninsula Borough have been subjected to a prolonged advertising campaign of fear-mongering and misinformation about the Pebble project," the statement said.

Indeed, residents in the region have been the center of a huge campaign over the mine. It's pitted villager against villager, pro-development groups against environmental groups and other "grassroots efforts" funded by Gillam. One of the most powerful churches in rural Alaska, the Orthodox Church, has tumbled into the debate.

One thing’s certain: this is not the last word on the mine. The Alaska Department of Law, which filed a brief in support of Pebble’s quest to keep the initiative off the ballot by claiming the effort violated the state’s constitution, will appeal the vote, as will the Pebble Partnership. 

"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," Pebble's statement said. "We agree and will continue our legal challenge for the reasons we have stated throughout this process."

The Alaska Superior Court will take up the constitutional issues on Nov. 7.

On the other side, Robert Redford and other activists have taken the issue nationally. This vote will bolster their public relations efforts.

Politicians have also begun to take note. Washington state's U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell recently wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency's administrator urging the agency to block permitting if the EPA finds that harm might be done to the salmon. She called the salmon runs “economic lynchpins” for commercial fishermen not just in Alaska but also in Washington. In 2010, 538 Washington residents held drift gillnet and set gillnet commercial salmon fishing licenses in Bristol Bay, off of which they made a total gross estimated earnings of about $60 million.

The 2010 census counted 299 residents in both Iliamna and Newhalen, two communities closest to the mine. Out of those, only 26 had commercial fishing permits, and only 22 fished those permits, according to the Alaska’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. The estimated gross earnings for both villages from commercial salmon fishing in Bristol Bay was about $1 million. For the Lake and Peninsula Borough, estimated gross earnings were about $4 million in 2010. More than 86 percent of seafood processing jobs in Bristol Bay go to non-Alaskan residents.  

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com.