Sen. Gary Stevens said this week his bill to create a huge state game refuge around and to the north and west of Iliamna Lake and name it after former Gov. Jay Hammond was not meant to impede Northern Dynasty Mines’ proposed Pebble Project.
However, a spokesman for Northern Dynasty Mines Inc., the company that hopes to build a gold-copper-molybdenum mine northwest of Iliamna, said its initial assessment of the Senate Bill 67 suggests it could foreclose any opportunity for mineral development across an area of thousands of square miles of resource-rich territory.
SB 67 would designate all surface and subsurface land and water owned or acquired in the future by the state within the hydrographic boundaries of the Kvichak and Nushagak-Mulchatna River drainages as the Jay Hammond State Game Refuge.
The proposed refuge (about 7.7 million acres) would be bordered by Lake Clark National Park and Reserve to the east, Katmai National Park and Preserve to the south, and Wood-Tikchik State Park to the west.
Game refuge regulations likely would be reflected in permit requirements for the mine. Restrictions might go much further, a company official said Friday.
Sean Magee, vice president of public affairs for NDM, said he believed the catalyst for Stevens’ bill was the effort by those bent on stopping the project and denying it a fair hearing.
“The implications for resource and economic development is very considerable,” Magee said. “The Lake and Peninsula Borough is very concerned because (the bill) could restrict land transfers.
“Village corporations and Native corporations, mining interests, oil and gas interests, all sorts of interests could be significantly impacted by the bill.”
“The idea was not meant to be an end run to stop Pebble,” Stevens said in an interview Wednesday. “It is meant to make sure habitat is taken into consideration.”
Stevens said those he’s talked to, people he said were in positions to look carefully at NDM’s applications, have said there were “plenty of safety measures.”
“But there is nothing wrong with ensuring the fish get every protection possible,” Stevens said. “The hope is, in a perfect world, that we could make use of these enormous resources of gold and copper while also protecting the salmon resource.”
Stevens said he had nothing against the mining industry but said many residents in the Lake and Peninsula Borough and elsewhere see advantages and disadvantages to building the mine.
“If we have to err, we have to err on the side of no damage to the salmon industry,” he said.
The Jay Hammond refuge would be managed as a state refuge for the protection of the habitat of salmon, trout, caribou, brown bear and other fish and wildlife species, according to the bill.
It also would be established to protect public use of fish and wildlife, “particularly subsistence, commercial and recreational fishing, hunting, trapping, viewing and general public recreation in a high quality environment. Other uses would be allowed provided they were not incompatible with the above primary uses, the bill states.
One provision would close land and water within the refuge to mineral entry. Another, however, says “valid allotment applications” would not be impaired or altered if filed before the bill’s effective date, should it become law. Steven’s aide Doug Letch said that second provision would apply to NDM’s Pebble project.
Magee said the assessment of the bill had only just begun, but it wasn’t clear exactly what was meant by the term “mineral entry.”
Elsewhere, SB 67 provides that sales of state land and water within the refuge would require legislative approval, and industrial waste could not be stored nor water discharged within the refuge that did not meet water quality standards for fish.
The storage issue also is problematic for NDM, Magee said.
“It is likely that tailings would be considered industrial waste,” he said. “You can’t develop a mine without storing tailings.”
That provision could present problems not only for mines, but also oil and gas development, perhaps even fish processing plants, he said.
The bill also would bar the state from taking private land within the refuge by eminent domain. Access to and from private land within the refuge would be permitted through designated corridors by agreement with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. A citizens’ advisory committee would be established to work with Fish and Game to manage the refuge.
Stevens said he has requested a public hearing for the bill by the Senate Resources Committee and expects that hearing to be held within the next couple of weeks.
“That should be interesting,” he said. “It will bring out people on both sides and address concerns.”
Magee said NDM officials likely will participate.
The hearing will be teleconferenced, he said.
Hal Spence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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