Backers of a proposed clean water ballot proposition that would place stringent environmental restrictions on large new mines have filed petitions with more than 60,000 signatures with the state Division of Elections.
Meanwhile, a senior state Department of Natural Resources official downplayed reports of negotiations between the state and backers of the initiative that would have the state impose greater scrutiny on any application for a mine at Pebble.
Deputy Commissioner Marty Rutherford said while there are no talks currently underway she held discussions on possible avenues of agreement between the state and mine opposition groups with Ashley Reed, a lobbyist for Anchorage businessman Bob Gillam, who is active in helping the opposition to the proposed Pebble mine.
Rutherford said she and Reed discussed various possibilities, including having an independent group of scientists review any application for a mine at Pebble to strengthen the state's Bristol Bay management plan. In the end, however, Rutherford and Reed were unable to find common ground and talks did not go further, she said.
"I was disappointed that we couldn't find areas of agreement," she said. "I am very concerned about a growing public perception that the Pebble project is so large that the state will be unable to adequately protect the area and the Bristol Bay fishery."
From her perspective, the discussions with mine opponents were partly aimed at helping them understand the state's present large-mine permitting system, she said.
Rutherford's hope was to get to a point where the initiative backers would not feel the need to go forward with the initiative. However, the petitions with signatures have now been filed with the lieutenant governor.
The Division of Elections has 60 days to certify petitions that were filed Jan. 14. The division must verify that there are at least 23,831 signatures of registered voters on the petitions.
"In order to qualify to be placed on the ballot, the petition must have qualified signatures from 10 percent of the votes cast in the 2006 general election," Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell said. Parnell oversees the Division of Elections. "Signatures must be gathered from 30 out of the 40 state House districts with the number of signatures from each district equal to 7 percent of the votes cast in the region in the last election."
The verification and crosschecking of names on the petitions with the state voter registration system is a painstaking process because each signature must be verified, Parnell said.
Backers of initiative campaigns usually gather more signatures than are really needed because some will inevitably be disallowed.
When the elections division has verified that the petition has met all three of those goals, the division informs Parnell that it has been certified.
The lieutenant governor and the state Department of Law then prepares the title and language for the ballot.
Meanwhile, it is still uncertain whether the initiative will make it on the ballot even if the Division of Elections certifies the signatures. Parnell had initially disqualified the initiative on the grounds that it was an appropriation of state resources, which only the Legislature can do under the state constitution.
Backers of the initiative disagreed and filed suit, and Parnell's decision was overturned by the state Superior Court.
The matter is now before the state Supreme Court. Signatures were allowed to be gathered for the initiative and for the petitions to be filed.
It is also uncertain whether the ballot proposition, if cleared by the courts, will appear on the August primary election ballot or the November general election ballot.
The law requires so many days to pass between the end of a regular session of the Legislature and the proposition being placed on the election ballot. If the Legislature sticks to its plan to adjourn in 90 days (roughly mid-April), the clean water proposition will appear on the primary election ballot. If the Legislature goes beyond 90 days in its regular session the question might be pushed to the November general election.
Which election ballot the question appears on is important because primary elections usually have lower voter turnouts than general elections. A group of voters with special interests can have a greater effect in the primary election.
The clean water initiative has sparked controversy in Alaska and opposition in rural communities because it would apply to many mining projects, not just Pebble. Any new mining permits for a project covering more than 640 acres would be covered by the initiative if it is approved by voters and becomes law.
John Holman, who owns a fishing lodge on the Kvichak River, opposes development of the Pebble project and is one of the backers of the clean water initiative.
The petition is aimed at large-scale mines, including Pebble, that haven't previously been permitted, he said.
"We didn't intend on having impact on existing mines. "We are a little bit leery of the existing infrastructure that oversees the permitting (of the mines). The existing state laws in Alaska seem fairly lenient when it comes to dumping anything (from the mines) into the waterways.
"I personally feel that mining in Alaska is fairly important, but there are some areas in the state where it shouldn't happen," he said. Holman, a resident of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, said he has spent half of his life living in the Bristol Bay region, including Ekwok and Levelock.
"There are so many people in the bay that don't want this (Pebble mine) to happen," he said.
The Council of Alaska Producers, which represents large mines in Alaska, is organizing a campaign to oppose the clean water initiative, said Karl Hanneman, council president and manager of public environmental affairs for Teck Pogo.
According to Hanneman, the measure would result in a shutdown of the mining industry.
"The wording in the initiatives themselves precludes creation of storage of waste rock from tailings," he said.
Hanneman denied rumors that the resource development industry had a $7.5 million campaign budget.
"We don't have a budget yet, or a campaign plan," he said. "It's not certain yet how much will need to be spent."
Opponents of the initiative include many rural Alaska Native communities because it could affect projects being developed on Native-owned lands, such as the large Donlin Creek gold project near the Kuskokwim River. Donlin Creek sits on lands owned by Calista Corp. and the TKC Corp., but minerals royalties from any production would be shared with other Native corporations under terms of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
It would also apply to producing mines that need new permits to be expanded.
This includes the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska, which plans an expansion into a new mine pit area. Red Dog is owned by Nana Regional Corp. Most of its revenues are shared with other Native corporations, as would be the case if Donlin Creek is developed.
Pebble, the project that ignited the initiative effort, is a large copper-gold-molybdenum deposit 18 miles north of Illiamna, southwest of Anchorage. Two of the world's largest mining companies, Anglo American and Rio Tinto, are now involved in the project along with the developer, Northern Dynasty Minerals.
The project is now in an advanced stage of exploration with substantial environmental research also underway. If a mine is developed it would most likely involve a combination underground and open pit mine.
AJOC reporter Margaret Bauman contributed to this report.
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