Primary: Ballot Measure 4 proving divisive

Posted: Friday, August 22, 2008

It will shut down mining in Alaska, spoil several rural economies and disrupt long established lifestyles.

No, it will stop an environmentally unsafe project, guarantee safe salmon, defend one of Alaska's key economies and protect long established lifestyles.

Take your pick.

Those claims are among the polarizing extremes in one of the more divisive debates to inflame passions in the Alaska electorate in some time. Ballot Measure 4, the Clean Water Initiative, became controversial enough to need a favorable Alaska Supreme Court decision just to make the ballot.

On Aug. 26, voters will decide the issues, and their decision is likely to have ramifications lasting years, however the election turns out.

Ballot Measure 4, sponsored by Alaskans for Clean Water, seeks to protect Alaska's clean water by limiting the discharge or release of certain toxic pollutants on state lands and waters, and by requiring the state to establish "management standards and regulatory prescriptions" to ensure against adverse impacts from new, large-scale metallic mineral mining operations.

The measure would bar the state from issuing permits to large-scale mining operations that allowed them to engage in activities that directly or indirectly released toxic pollutants into surface or subsurface waters in measurable amounts that would impact human health or welfare, or impact any stage of the life cycle of salmon.

Nor could the state issue permits allowing such companies to store or dispose of mining wastes, overburden, waste rock and tailings in such a way that pollutants (acids, dissolved metals, toxics) would enter water used for human consumption or for salmon spawning, rearing, migration or propagation.

While Ballot Measure 4 would affect any new large-scale mine proposal, proponents hope to stop the huge Pebble Mine project north of Iliamna proposed by the Pebble Partnership (Northern Dynasty Minerals and Anglo-American).

Supporters say the measure would protect Bristol Bay's commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries -- the largest salmon fishery on the planet -- by protecting lakes, rivers and streams in the proposed Pebble Mine zone.

Opponents, led by a group called Alaskans Against the Mining Shutdown, argue that the measure would do far more than stop Pebble. They've called it "a wolf in sheep's clothing," predicting a disastrous impact on Alaska's entire mining industry that would result in job losses by the thousands, see rural economies in need of high-paying jobs undermined, and force the shutdown of existing mines.

Ballot Measure 4 ignores years of regulatory policy and state and federal processes that are fair, transparent and based on science and independent professional review, opponents say. Drafters of the "con statement" available on the Alaska Division of Elections Web site, including Cynthia Toohey, chair of Alaskans Against the Mining shutdown, called Ballot Measure 4 "a drastic, deceptive and poorly worded initiative" that could lead to years of lawsuits, red tape and costly bureaucracy that would threaten the industry.

Furthermore, opponents point out that the initiative language does not say when or how new standards and prescriptions would be written or what they might include, casting a cloud of uncertainty over the industry that could have a negative impact on investment and prevent existing mines from expanding.

"The 'yes' folks say this is about the Pebble Mine," said Willis Lyford, campaign director for Alaskans Against the Mining Shutdown. "But Pebble and Bristol Bay are not mentioned at all (in the measure's text). They can't be."

Indeed, state statute bans the use of initiatives to target a specific project.

"So the assertion that this is about Pebble is groundless," Lyford said. "It is, by its nature, applicable statewide, so it does affect existing and future mines."

Lyford said the ballot measure's grandfather clause purporting to protect existing mines is flawed, because it does not address new facilities at existing mines.

"It leaves it an open issue," he said.

The ballot measure, he added, attempts to write regulations at the ballot box rather than leaving that to scientists and experts.

Ballot Measure 4 supporters say opponents are resorting to scare tactics and insist the ballot measure's provisions protect existing mines and would not destroy the industry.

Bruce Switzer, who has decades of experience in the mining industry and now serves as technical advisor the Alaskans for Clean Water, said opponents of Pebble tried unsuccessfully to accomplish their aims with bills in the Legislature, but nothing advanced out of committee. The initiative, he said, was admittedly "a blunt instrument, where a scalpel would have been better."

Switzer noted that nowhere in the world are sulfide mines like the one proposed at Pebble operating near such a sensitive watershed as that which feeds the Bristol Bay fishery. And, he added, nowhere is there a sulfide mine that has not polluted its surroundings. If there were, Ballot Measure 4 opponents would be touting its virtues loudly.

The technology is available to make mining much cleaner, Switzer acknowledged, but there is no way Pebble could be operated without seriously damaging the environment, and it should never be built, he said.

Pebble Partnership spokesman Sean Magee said some mineralization at Pebble was contained in sulfides, but Pebble is not a massive sulfide deposit.

"Red Dog Mine has a much higher sulfide content then Pebble," he said, adding that its operators had "an exceptional track record" with regard to water quality and fish habitat. Magee also pointed to Gibraltar Copper Mine in British Columbia, which he said had never had any negative effects on water quality downstream.

Switzer challenged the idea that copper, gold and molybdenum deposits at the Pebble site are good enough to make development economic, noting that the mining company Teck Cominco "walked away" from its interests in the property, selling them to Northern Dynasty. Switzer said he believed that the ores are low grade and that the likely markets for copper and molybdenum were in volatile locations like China and India, suggesting if there were economic downturns there, the viability of a mine at Pebble would be in doubt.

Magee acknowledged that mining and metals are "notoriously cyclical," but that Pebble was more stable because it has the potential to be a very long-life mine lasting many decades, giving it "the benefit of riding out multiple metal (price) cycles." Magee also said Teck Cominco delineated about an eighth of the deposit discovered by Northern Dynasty. He said what's been found since was "significantly higher grade."

Switzer acknowledged that the detailed regulations a successful election might require are not yet written, but said several state agencies likely would be involved, probably including the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Fish and Game.

Spokespersons of the Pebble Partnership have argued that the state and federal rules and permitting processes already do and certainly would include strict environmental protections and that mining operations would adhere to them. It will be years before the partnership is prepared to apply for permits, and the project should not be saddled with new regulations and an "arbitrary, untested process" by the ballot box, they've said.

Magee said he believes the United States and Alaska have permitting processes and environmental standards that are among the highest in the world. He added that the Pebble Partnership expects to go beyond those requirements, and that the mine would be built to any standards in existence at the time, including regulations that might arise out of a successful Ballot Measure 4.

The Alaska Supreme Court decision that opened the door to the August ballot for the clean water measure upheld Superior Court Judge Douglas Blankenship's earlier ruling that the initiative did not violate the Alaska Constitution or state statutes, contrary to the assertions of opponents, including the Pebble Partnership, the Council of Alaska Producers and others. Nor did it constitute an improper taking or amount to local or special legislation (which is banned by statute). It would not unlawfully amend the constitution, the justices said.

A lot of confusion attends the intended and perceived impacts of Ballot Measure 4, Lyford said, and that's starting to sink in with voters. He said he thought the majority of Alaskans would vote no.

Switzer said he thought public opinion was turning toward a yes vote.

More information is available on the Alaska Division of Elections Web site, as well as at, and

Hal Spence can be reached at

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