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Alaska Judge Overrules Local Citizens Initiative Protecting Bristol Bay Salmon from Pebble Mine

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Posted March 20, 2014 in Reviving the World's Oceans, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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Yesterday a state court judge in Alaska ruled against the local “Save Our Salmon” initiative that would have effectively stopped the Pebble Mine.  The SOS initiative, passed by local voters in the Lake and Peninsula Borough in October 2011 and promptly challenged by the Pebble Partnership and the State of Alaska, would have banned mines larger than 640 acres that destroy or degrade salmon habitat. 

SOS logo.jpg

The judge ruled that the state – not local governments – has the sole power to regulate “all matters affecting the mineral resources of the state” and that the local initiative therefore countermanded the state’s regulatory authority over mining.

Since good news for the Pebble Mine has been scarce to non-existent in recent times, it’s no surprise that Pebble proponents were quick to hail the decision as a vindication of the state’s right to disregard the wishes of local communities.

Although Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole applauded Alaska’s “rigorous permitting process,” he did so precisely because the state has never said “no” to a large-scale mine.  

In fact, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (the state agency with authority to permit the mine) is already on record saying that, if given the opportunity, it will eventually permit the Pebble Mine.  In an interview with PBS’s Frontline Alaska Gold, Ed Fogels, the Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said that they would have “no choice” but to permit Pebble and that “essentially they’re due a permit.”  “As long as they keep beefing up the design, you know, at some point, you know, you would think we would have no choice but to say, ‘Yeah, well, you’re going to meet all the laws and regulations there. OK. That’s going to pass muster.’”

As if it couldn’t get worse, Alaska’s “rigorous permitting process” is being further undermined right now in the State Legislature with HB 77 – a bill that would erode important standards in the state’s regulatory process and change the law in several ways to limit the public’s ability to meaningfully participate and to insure protections for natural resources. 

Could there be any clearer evidence of the need for EPA to protect the critical water and fishery resources of Bristol Bay – and to defend the will of the people who live there?  

It’s no secret in Alaska that its own state regulatory process is incapable of protecting the Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery from the Pebble Mine.  That’s why the residents of the Lake and Peninsula Borough approved the SOS initiative in the first place.  And that’s why 10 tribes from Bristol Bay formally petitioned EPA to use its federal Clean Water Act authority to stop the Pebble Mine and any other large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.

The good news is that EPA is listening.  Just last month, based on a three-year peer-reviewed comprehensive scientific assessment, it started a process under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay from Pebble Mine. 

Now more than ever, we urge EPA to finish what it started and to stop the Pebble Mine.  While an appeal of yesterday’s state court decision is likely, there can be no real question that Alaska’s state regulatory officials are not up to the task of saying no to the Pebble Partnership, even if it means contaminating the state’s incomparable, irreplaceable Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery.

Photo credit: Save our Salmon Initiative

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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