July 22, 2008

Mining Ballot Measure Tough to Sort Out

By Elizabeth Bluemink, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska

Jul. 22--The friends and foes of Ballot Measure 4, the proposed state law seeking tougher pollution standards for large, new mines, can't seem to find much to agree on.

Not only do they disagree about the effects of the initiative -- its sponsors say it won't hurt any projects except Pebble, but the mining industry and its supporters say it could shut down many Alaska mines -- they can't agree on basic matters about the mining industry.

Such as how many people work in mining in Alaska, what its relative importance is in the state's economy and how much money it contributes in taxes.

The two sides trotted out their disharmonious facts at a forum on Measure 4, dubbed the Clean Water Initiative, at an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon Monday. The public will vote on the proposed law in the Aug. 26 statewide election.

A few audience members quizzed after the forum said they had made their minds up about the initiative beforehand. But, with the whirl of advertising on TV, radio and in print -- in which the two sides basically accuse each other of lying -- they think the general public is probably confused.

Ralph Swan, an Anchorage businessman, said he was disappointed the forum didn't get into the gritty details of what the initiative would or wouldn't do if it passes.

He said he suspects the initiative could have unintended consequences.

The initiative was drafted by opponents of the proposed Pebble mine being explored in Southwest Alaska. Developing Pebble has blown up into a statewide controversy due to its massive size -- it would be one of the world's largest copper-gold mines -- and its location at the headwaters of two rivers that feed Bristol Bay's world-class salmon runs.

The initiative would ban new metal mines over 640 acres in size from discharging harmful amounts of certain toxic pollutants into salmon streams or drinking water sources. But the mining industry says the initiative's wording is too vague and it might end up banning any discharges of those pollutants, no matter whether they are harmful, or prevent mines from getting new permits.


At Monday's forum, a former mining industry executive, Bruce Switzer, told the chamber audience the initiative only targets Pebble and wouldn't prevent the state's gold, silver and zinc mines from getting new permits. He said the mining industry's statements about a possible shutdown are baseless propaganda.

Rose Barr, an environmental coordinator for the Red Dog zinc and lead mine near Kotzebue, disagreed. She said the initiative will create more regulations and it's not clear yet what those regulations will say. The regulations would be created after the initiative becomes law.

"We don't know what the outcome will be at the end of the day," she said.

Switzer also accused the industry of inflating its importance in Alaska.

For example, he said the mining industry is wrong to claim 3,523 mining jobs. He said a recent briefing to the Legislature showed only about 1,500 jobs.

It turns out Switzer was tallying the numbers for jobs at metal-producing mines. Other mining jobs in Alaska include coal mining, placer mining, sand and gravel pits and working for mineral exploration companies, totalling 3,523 jobs in 2006, according to state records.

He also said gold mines contributed only about $120,000 per year to state coffers, averaged out over the last decade. However, at least one new gold mine has opened in the past couple of years. Tax revenue from the mining industry was $152 million in fiscal year 2007, according to the Alaska Department of Revenue.


After the forum, Switzer said that only metal mines are relevant to Measure 4's consequences.

But Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, who attended the forum, was steamed.

"(Switzer) is extremely loose with his phrases," he said.

Later this week, state regulators from several agencies plan to issue their own joint statement about the initiative's consequences.

That interpretation will be different from those of the mining industry and the initiative's sponsors. The regulators say the initiative will not directly result in any changes to their agencies' regulation of water quality at mines.

But because the agencies believe the initiative has confusing language, they expect that if it passes "it will probably be litigated," said Ed Fogels, a division director at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources who was tasked to assemble the information.

He said the state will unveil the information on a public Web site this week.


Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.


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