Bristol Bay-area opponents to the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska gained some legal footing Monday when an Anchorage Superior Court judge ruled that a lawsuit against the state is worthy of trial.
Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of nine Bristol Bay village corporations, sued the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for issuing exploratory permits to Pebble Partnership without providing public notice.
In his ruling, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth said "the most basic question in this case is whether the state was required to balance various constitutional interests when considering whether to issue the permits and do so in a transparent way."
Following a 20-page decision, Aarseth paved the way for a Dec. 6 trial that will focus on the state's approval of Pebble exploration and water use.
Bobby Andrew, Nunamta Aulukestai's spokesman, said Aarseth's decision to send the case to trial gives the people of Bristol Bay "a little more headway."
"They (DNR) are going to need to make sure the public is aware of what they are doing and what their system is going to require. If they are not going to allow any public comments, for me that's not very good," Andrew said. "We need to be involved as the owners of the resources as well as the land. It's not the officials that own the state of Alaska, it's the people of the state that own the resources."
Andrew said protecting those resources is the highest priority.
"We live there and we've lived there many thousands of years," Andrew said. "Many neighbors and villages in the region need the salmon, and they need to preserve those for the future generations. And it's not just salmon, but we also need to protect the waters. We need water to survive."
Bella Hammond, a former first lady; Victor Fisher, a former state constitutional delegate; and Bristol Bay residents Ricky Delkittie Sr. and Violet Willson also joined the plaintiffs in the suit filed in July 2009.
The proposed Pebble project is a joint effort between the companies Northern Dynasty of Vancouver, B.C., and London-based conglomerate Anglo American to develop what will be one of the world's largest copper and gold mines.
Tom Crafford, DNR's large mine permitting coordinator, said the state has been expecting the case to move to trial. The case raises the question of whether the people of Bristol Bay should have brought their concerns directly to the state before filing a lawsuit, Crafford said.
"That means that the process for which agency actions are addressed is that there needs to be an appeal to the commissioner and the commissioner needs to render a decision," Crafford said. "If the plaintiff is unhappy with the decision they are then afforded the opportunity to go to court."
Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said there are still many aspects of the case that remain up in the air.
"The underlying thing about the case is that it's about our exploration work, and we take great care to minimize our work's environmental impact," Heatwole said. "I would encourage the plaintiffs and the judge to come out first hand and check out our work."
Andrew Waite can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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