August 25, 2008

Mining Ballot Splits Alaska Along New Lines Mineral Discovery Haunts Fisheries

By William Yardley

Just up the fish-rich rivers that surround this tiny bush town on Bristol Bay is a discovery of copper and gold so vast and valuable that no one seems able to measure it all. Then again, no one really knows the value of the rivers, either. They are the priceless headwaters of one of the world's last great runs of Pacific salmon.

"Perhaps it was God who put these two great resources right next to each other," said John Shively, the chief executive of a foreign consortium that wants to mine the copper and gold deposit. "Just to see what people would do with them."

What people are doing is fighting, as Alaskans hardly have before.

While experts say the mine could yield more than $300 billion in metals and hundreds of jobs for struggling rural Alaska, unearthing the metals could mean releasing chemicals that are toxic to the salmon that are central to a fishing industry worth at least $300 million each year.

And while the metals are a finite discovery, the fish have replenished themselves for millennia.

"If they have one spill up there, what's going to happen?" said Steve Shade, 50, an Alaska native who has fished Bristol Bay all his life, for dinner and for a living. "This is our livelihood. They're going to ruin it for everybody."

Rarely are Alaskans at odds over which of their natural resources they want to exploit. Oil? Timber? Minerals? Fish? While outsiders and some state residents may urge restraint, most people here typically just select all of the above.

Yet the fight over what is known as the Pebble Mine is playing out as a war between economies and cultures, between copper and clean water, gold and wild salmon. Strange alliances and divisions have developed. Miners have been pitted against fishermen, as have Yupik Eskimos, Aleuts and Athabascan Indians, and other Alaska Native people who want the jobs the new mine could bring versus those who fear that it threatens thousands of years of culture.

Now the fight is expanding, from the bush to the ballot.

On Tuesday, Alaskans will vote on Measure 4, an initiative intended to increase protections for streams where salmon live. Over just a few months, the measure has become one of the most expensively fought campaigns in state history, with the two sides expected to spend a total of more than $10 million. Opponents of the measure have outraised supporters by more than two to one.

The vote is expected to be close, and doomsday scenarios abound, sketched by supporters and opponents through television, radio and Internet advertisements that evoke things like exploding mine sites, vibrant red sockeye, sturdy-looking miners worried about their jobs and sturdy-looking fishermen worried about their jobs.

Jewelers, including Tiffany & Co., have pledged not to use gold from Pebble Mine, while some powerful corporations run by Alaska Native groups say the mine is crucial to the rural economy.

Fear prevails on both sides, anticipating a time when developers will submit a formal application to the state to build Pebble Mine, which could be as soon as 2010, though it may be many more years before the first ore is extracted.

"I've never been a guy who's been in bed with the environmental movement," said Brian Gannon, who manages a small salmon processing plant north of Dillingham and supports Measure 4, "but this is about survival for me."

Opponents of the Pebble Mine worry that it will open the entire area to mining. For now, the most likely possibility is that Pebble would be a combination of open-pit and underground, because of the way minerals are dispersed. Both methods could require huge holding areas for toxic mine waste with walls hundreds of feet high, as well as a facility for processing ore, pumps that remove millions of gallons of water from the ground and an 80-mile, or 130-kilometer, road in an area that is now accessible only by helicopter.

"It's going to have to be the most environmentally tight mine ever designed on planet Earth if it's going to go," said Ed Fogels, director of project management and permitting at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. "That's unequivocal."

But speaking of the Pebble Mine site, where exploratory drilling rigs have already sampled more than 700 sections of the deposit, Fogels added: "We're supposed to be managing it for multiple uses. There's this mandate that we need to somehow make a living off Alaska's state land."

It is unclear what impact Measure 4 would have if it passed.

Supporters play down its reach, saying it would strengthen protections for salmon around new mine sites, but mining companies and the Alaska Native corporations allied with them cast it as an effort to inhibit the state's growing mining industry by putting up new legal obstacles in the permit process.

Supporters of Measure 4, who qualified it for the ballot by collecting more than 30,000 signatures of registered voters, say their diversity reflects the range of opposition to the mine, including sport fishermen, commercial fishing companies, environmentalists and Alaska Native groups. They cite the numerous mining projects that have damaged fisheries in the West.

Supporters say Measure 4 is necessary because they have fewer tools to fight Pebble Mine since the proposed site is on state land, not federal. They say state officials, however concerned they may be about fisheries and environmental health, are in the business of granting permits, not denying them.

"We're just trying to convince Alaskans that, O.K., we can have mining, just not in this place," said Tim Bristol, director of Trout Unlimited Alaska. "It's such an exceptional risk to such an exceptional fishery."

Specifically, the measure would prevent new large-scale mines from releasing toxins into water where salmon live. State officials have said that the language essentially duplicates existing regulations. If the measure passes, said Fogels, of the Department of Natural Resources, "we don't anticipate doing anything different."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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