Clean water forum sparks controversy

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2008

One day after the Alaska Supreme Court ruled one of two clean water initiatives wouldn't be on the August primary ballot, representatives from both sides of the issue faced off in a forum discussion to promote their case and take questions on the remaining initiative.

Ballot Measure 4, promoted by Alaskans for Clean Water, seeks to protect public interest in water quality by limiting the discharge of pollutants. It would withhold licenses, authorizations and permits from a prospective large-scale mine if it directly or indirectly discharges pollutants in an amount that would affect human health and the life cycle of salmon.

According to Alaskans for Clean Water, the initiative wouldn't apply to existing mines that have the necessary permits and licenses. The initiative also wouldn't affect future operations of existing mines. This ballot measure is still scheduled to appear on the August ballot, but that determination will be made by the court following an argument Monday.

The development of the Pebble gold and copper mine sparked the creation of the initiative, but representatives of Alaskans Against the Mining Shutdown said Tuesday's forum they were neither for or against the building of the mine. The initiative unfairly targets mining, they said, adding that the initiative's language is confusing and would take judges and lawyers to interpret it.

Representatives of Alaskans for Clean Water said the initiative explicitly states existing mines would be exempt and such a measure is necessary for protecting the state's water and salmon resources. The forum was held at the Kenai Central High School Renee C. Henderson Auditorium and sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce and the Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development District. Merrill Sikorski moderated the forum.

During her opening statement, Lorna Shaw, executive director of the Council of Alaska Producers, said the initiative was put in place because of a "very vocal and well-funded opposition" to the Pebble Mine. Even though supporters of the initiative say existing mines are grandfathered in, Shaw said voters vote on what they wrote.

"They came along with the first initiative, (which was) so flawed, it was truly a shutdown," she said, adding the mining industry's attorneys said such an initiative would be "the end of the industry."

"(The initiative) requires interpretation by judges and lawyers, it's not good for Alaska," she said.

Clark Whitney Jr., who supports the initiative because of his years of hunting and fishing in the Nondalton area, said the residents of Alaska feel like they have no voice when it comes to deciding what is done with the state's natural resources.

Whitney mentioned the mixing zones set up by former Gov. Frank Murkowski that operated on the idea that "dilution is the solution to pollution." What the former governor didn't take into account, Whitney said, was that contaminants discharged by mines and other entities are bioaccumulative.

"This initiative, which was approved by the lieutenant governor is not loosely worded," he said. "It protects salmon resources."

Before he opened it up to questions from the audience, Sikorski asked the pro-initiative side why people couldn't just vote to stop the Pebble Mine.

"You cannot have an initiative that allocates resources," Whitney responded.

Dave Atcheson, acting executive director for the Renewable Resources Coalition, said the initiative isn't going to stop Pebble. It would just give the Department of Natural Resources an additional tool to prevent toxins from affecting salmon.

During her rebuttal, Shaw said the initiative applies only to the mining industry.

"It's not about clean water," she said. "It singles out the mining industry (and) tries to add additional regulations."

During the forum, a dispute arose concerning how those toxins would be measured and what standard they would be compared to. Whitney said in a 55-gallon drum a piece of cyanide enough to kill a salmon would be considered five parts per billion.

"The measurement would be a dead salmon," he said.

Shaw pointed out that the measure doesn't say an adverse impact on salmon.

Atcheson said fisheries biologist Carol Ann Woody was invited to participate in the forum, but she said she felt the format wouldn't be productive.

"We were going to have a scientist here where they can talk longer than five minutes," he said.

Joe Mathis, vice president of the NANA Regional Corp. that owns the land around Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue, said the people who live in the affected region should have the strongest input. He said NANA spent 10 years gathering input from residents in the area and the consensus was a mine would positively impact the economy.

Audience member Laura MacIndoe, who said she raised her children in Nondalton, said she knows people there don't want Pebble Mine to go through.

Molly Lanborn, a 19-year-old nursing student from the University of Alaska Anchorage, said her dad is a geologist and has been in the gold mining industry since she can remember. Being involved with mining through her family and her job at Alaska Road Builders, she said if mining is shut down in Alaska it will just go elsewhere. A mine in South America or China wouldn't be subject to the same regulations a mine in Alaska would, she said, and that this initiative is another way to outsource jobs.

After the forum, Shaw said she felt the discussion was helpful, but she was sorry there wasn't a bigger turnout. Providing as much clarity to mining in Alaska is important because it's such a big issue, she said.

She said it would be preferable that an initiative that addresses clean water go through the Legislature, which would allow the public to have input, as well as the mining industry.

"We don't get to vote on what the authors meant," she said. "Without a public process we don't get the true intent of the initiative."

Atcheson said it would have been good if the presentation could have allowed more in-depth information by scientists instead of merely a debate. If the Alaska Supreme Court decides to dismiss the remaining initiative, Atcheson said it would be possible that Alaskans For Clean Water would go through the Legislature to do something that would protect Bristol Bay, such as setting up a wildlife refuge.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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