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Ballot Measure Aims to Protect Local Salmon Population

Alaska Department of Fish and Game

A new ballot measure is set to be voted on in the November state election, and if approved, would put restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay.  KDLG’s Chase Cavanaugh has more.

Political group Bristol Bay Forever is sponsoring a ballot measure that would put additional environmental protections on the area known as the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve.  The area, consisting of 36,000 square miles of land and rivers in Southwest Alaska, was established in 1972 as a way to protect the local salmon populations from the effects of oil and gas development.  For any oil or gas company to get surface entry rights, they need to obtain a legislative declaration that says their activities won’t harm the fish.   Earlier this month, Alaska Common Ground held a forum on the ballot measure, which, among other things, would expand these restrictions to large scale metallic sulfide mines.  Moderator and former Division of Mining, Land, and Water Director Dick Mylius explains. 

“The initiative basically does three significant things to the existing fisheries reserve. It adds those large scale metallic mines to things requiring legislative approval, it broadens the geographic area to include the entire drainage including uplands, and it also applies not just to state waters or state lands. It applies to state, private, and federal lands within the reserve.”

Federal lands already have significant restrictions on mining, but the inclusion of private lands will expand fisheries reserve protections to nearly 7 million acres in the hands of local native corporations.  Mylius says that Pebble Mine, a proposed copper and gold mine which would excavate west of Nondalton, would be strongly affected by the ballot measure. 

“Pebble is within the Bristol Bay Fishery Reserve and would be greater than 640 acres and is a large scale metallic sulfide mine, so if this passed, it would require that the legislature approve a future pebble mine at the end of the permitting process. However, Pebble has not submitted any applications to develop a mine at this point, and there are also other known mineral deposits within the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve that could also be subject to the state laws.”

Sponsors and supporters of Ballot Measure 4 characterize the Bristol Bay fishery as a valuable economic resource for the state, and want to provide an additional layer of protection against mining pollution, which they worry could irreparably damage the fish habitats.  Anders Gustafson, Executive Director of the Renewable Resources Coalition, says although the permitting process is comprehensive, requiring legislative approval provides an additional perspective. 

“They’ll tell you what you need to adjust and what you need to change, and that’s the way it should be, back and forth, a working process. But in the end, there’s no one saying, “all right, you’ve got this permit to dredge here, you’ve got this permit to build this road. Where is the permit that says should we do it at all?” I see the “could permits”, can we do this, but where’s the should? Is this gonna have a bad effect overall, is this the right thing to do in general? There is no net end result that evaluates the impacts of all these permits together.”

Opponents of the measure say projects like Pebble, which are already in the extensive permitting process, shouldn’t be subjected to a sudden change in regulations, and worry such a modification could discourage investment.   At the forum, mining engineer Richard Hughes argued that the legislature doesn’t have the authority to regulate permits.

“I think they could have the right to designate a special area, no question about it, but I still think moving that the approval process to the legislature is a separation of powers issue and a usurpation of the authority of the state administrators.”

The Bristol Bay Forever measure faced a legal challenge from mining interests on another point. They argued that it violated Article 11, section 7 of the Alaska Constitution, which prohibits referendums from creating “special or local legislation.”  However, the Alaska Supreme Court disagreed, so Bristol Bay Forever was approved for the ballot.  Full text of the measure is available on the website of the Alaska Division of Elections, and it will be put up to a vote in the November 4th General Election.