Legislative body to study Pebble

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lobbying will shift from the statehouse to the legislative council after Gov. Sean Parnell approved a third-party study of the Pebble mine project.

The $750,000 appropriation in the capital budget survived Parnell's veto pen over the protests of state mining organizations. Now, decisions on shaping the scope of the study -- or whether to conduct it -- fall to the 14-member council comprised of seven members each from the House and Senate.

The Pebble Partnership, Resource Defense Council and the Alaska Miners Association urged Parnell to veto the study, which they argued was vague, overlapped existing state and federal permit requirements, and set a bad precedent for future development by singling out one project for extra scrutiny through legislative action.

In a single sentence, the capital budget item directs the council to conduct an "independent third-party scientific and multidisciplinary study of the potential large mine development in the Bristol Bay drainage."

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, a member of the council who represents the Lake and Peninsula Borough where the Pebble deposit is located, said Parnell's decision was "the right thing to do."

"As in many issues, we need to let science lead us here and find out what the actual situation is," said Stevens, who was unsuccessful at securing stand-alone funding for a Pebble study during the 2009 legislative session. "I think it's an advantage doing an independent study."

Council chairman Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, said the study could look at the Alaska permitting process -- which Pebble opponents often say is insufficient -- to examine the potential impact of the mine and a reason to conduct the independent study.

"I think that's a real possibility," Harris said. "Part of it may address the adequacy of what we have now. We have a pretty rigorous environmental assessment of projects. I don't think there's any doubt about that. If mines are done correctly, they can be done in an environmentally sound manner."

While Harris wouldn't commit to a look at Alaska's permit process -- an aspect of the study the Pebble Partnership would welcome -- he did say the issue was worth addressing.

Trout Unlimited, a leading opponent of the Pebble project, was "pleased" with Parnell's decision.

"Clearly with the outstanding fisheries resources that Bristol Bay offers and given the size and scale of the mine being envisioned for the area, having an outside group of independent experts take a hard look at the potential impacts is good public policy," said Trout Unlimited spokesperson Paula Dobbyn. "We're grateful that Gov. Parnell decided not to veto these funds."

Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for Pebble Partnership, said the council process is "something we have to work with now." The mine will need at least 67 major state and federal permits, in addition to hundreds of others.

"Our concerns remain very strong about the lack of scope," Heatwole said. "We hear a lot of different things about what the study is supposed to do, but there is a lack of concrete information. The next stage is to track the legislative council process on the scope."

The scope is of particular concern for Pebble, which has not released a plan to be analyzed and likely won't until early 2011. Heatwole said it therefore "remains a question" how the study can reach conclusions about the project compatibility with the Bristol Bay watershed. Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Steve Borell has called the study "another attack" on Pebble.

Stevens, who has constituents for and against Pebble in his district, said the study is not a "witch hunt."

"It's not taking either a pro or con approach," Stevens said, "and trying to learn the truth."

Sometime after the fiscal year begins July 1, chairman Harris, legislative affairs staff and legal counsel will develop a request for proposals, or RFP, that will describe the criteria to be covered by the study and solicit offers from companies to perform it. The RFP is confidential until it is released to the public.

From there, council members will have input on modifying the RFP and the full council will ultimately vote on the final plan before it is advertised for 21 days. Proposals received are confidential until the council awards the contract.

Harris said an RFP wouldn't be published until late July at the earliest.

In Stevens' 2009 legislation seeking a third-party study, he specified the National Academy of Sciences to conduct the study, but Harris said the council only awards sole-source contracts in "extreme circumstances."

"The reality of the whole situation is if the council were to determine that they don't want to go ahead with it, they wouldn't do it," Harris said. "Just because money is in budget, that doesn't mean you'll spend it. It doesn't mandate that happens. It was a proposal in budget; the governor saw fit to leave it in the budget.

"I think the administration would like to have some collaboration with the legislative council on the RFP moving forward. They don't have to, but they would like to simply because it may have something to do with their departments."

Harris was referring to the commissioners of the departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Game, and Environmental Conservation, who all have regulatory authority over the Pebble permit process.

After making his vetoes to the capital budget, Parnell said he let the Pebble study stand because he deferred to the Legislature and was assured by his agency heads that the study would have no effect on the state's permit process.

Harris said he pledged to Parnell to work with the agencies on the final RFP.

"I talked to governor before it was signed, I said I had no intention of doing anything but working with administration," Harris said. "We're independent, I understand that. But I get along with the governor and I get along with the different agency commissioners.

"It's not my job to sabotage them or anybody else. It's all about what's best for Alaska, right?"

The Pebble deposit, located northwest of Lake Iliamna and northeast of Bristol Bay, contains an estimated $400 billion worth of copper, gold and molybdenum. It is still in the planning phase, with exploratory drilling and environmental research continuing in advance of the actual permit process, which isn't expected to begin until 2011 at the earliest and could last three years or more.

The project has attracted strong opposition from fishermen, area villages and environmental groups who believe the mine will foul a pristine ecosystem and harm the world's largest sockeye salmon run.

Stevens said his biggest concern is the potential for water pollution and the prospect of a tailings dam situated on an active seismic zone. He also said the Alaska Constitution requires the Pebble mine to be given consideration.

"(The constitution) tells me we can't ignore something as important as mining," he said. "It's had a great history in Alaska. The industry has contributed a lot to Alaska. We certainly can't ignore it. On one hand, we have obligation to give every opportunity to mining to look at a project and see if we can do it without damage. On the other hand, we have centuries of fishing out there and the last 100 years of commercial fishing. We know how important that is and don't want to lose that."

Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen.@alaskajournal.com.

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