JUNEAU, Alaska -- The battle over a copper and gold mine near one of the world's premier salmon fisheries is headed to the ballot in a vote next week that has turned a normally sleepy local election into a national environmental debate.
Voters in southwest Alaska's Lake and Peninsula Borough are deciding whether to ban large-scale resource extraction activity, including mining, that would destroy or degrade salmon habitat. The measure is aimed squarely at Pebble Mine, the massive gold-and-copper prospect near the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
The debate surrounding Pebble has attracted the attention of chefs, Robert Redford and big-name jewelers who have vowed not to sell any gold coming from the project
But Tuesday's vote will almost certainly not be the last word on how – or whether – the mine is built.
"Among other things, the question in front of the Lake and Peninsula voters is about changes to land use that the Alaska attorney general says is unenforceable as a matter of law," said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble Limited Partnership, the group promoting the mine project.
Pebble Partnership sued to keep the "Save the Salmon" initiative off the ballot, arguing in part that the measure would improperly bypass the role of the local planning commission. State court Judge John Suddock denied that request, noting Alaska's Supreme Court has given deference to initiatives absent proof they would do something unlawful. He put the case on hold until Nov. 7, to allow for the vote and challenges.
The vote is the latest skirmish in the fight over a project that supporters say could create up to 1,000 long-term jobs in economically-depressed rural Alaska but that opponents fear could fundamentally change the landscape and disrupt, if not destroy, a way of life.
The mine is a joint venture of Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and Anglo American plc of the United Kingdom.
The companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars scoping out the deposit, which Northern Dynasty has described as the largest undeveloped deposit of its type in the world, with the potential of producing 53 billion pounds of copper, 50 million ounces of gold and 2.8 billion pounds of molybdenum over nearly 80 years.
The mine would be directly above Iliamna Lake, the largest producer of sockeye salmon in the world.
This year, the commercial harvest of salmon was valued at nearly $138 million, which doesn't include fish caught by Alaska Natives for subsistence. The Bristol Bay Native Corp., which has more than 8,000 shareholders with ties to the region, is opposed to the mine.
Jason Metrokin, Bristol Bay Native corp.'s chief executive, recently said in a statement that Pebble presents an "unacceptable risk to Bristol Bay salmon, which have supported our communities for thousands of years" while providing an important commercial, food and cultural resource.
Pebble Mine would be located 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and has been described as the potentially the world's largest man-made excavation. Though Heatwole said Pebble hasn't completed a pre-feasibility study or formally submitted a mine plan, critics say the potential footprint of the project could cover 15 square miles, with an open pit and network of roads and power lines.
"It's not a NIMBY thing so much as a survival thing," said Scott Kendall, an Anchorage attorney for the Save Our Salmon ballot group. He likened it to putting a nuclear plant next to an elementary school. "To these people, it's completely inappropriate and incompatible with the life they want to live."
The region around Bristol Bay is sparsely populated, dotted by small communities mostly cut off from the road system and generally accessible only by plane. About 1,600 people live in Lake and Peninsula Borough, which is roughly the size of West Virginia, covering about 23,780 square miles.
The landscape is pristine, stark, rugged, boasting wildlife like walrus, moose, bears and caribou. For a short period each summer, the area bustles with fishing activity, a leading sector of the local economy.
Over the last several years, there's been lobbying surrounding the project both sides. Ads, alternately touting the mine's economic potential or casting it as dangerous and wrong for Alaska, frequently appear on statewide TV.
For Greg Anelon, the vote is less about Pebble Mine than it is about land-use rights.
Anelon, a fisherman who works at the Iliamna Development Corp., a subsidiary of another Alaska Native corporation that is involved in a number of businesses, said he hasn't made his mind up about the proposed mine, and wants to first see a plan of development. Nevertheless, Anelon is working to defeat the initiative. He worries the measure is the wrong tack to take in fighting the mine, arguing that it could affect other activities, like gravel extraction, a claim that Kendall denies.
The initiative would ban any work covering more than one-square mile and impacting waters significant for salmon. Kendall said there's never been another project of that size in the borough.
Lisa Reimers, chief executive of the Iliamna Development Corp., said the measure is poorly worded. If it passes, she said people will read it how they want to read it, leading to possible litigation over housing and other projects.
"They make it sound like all fish will die if you don't support the initiative," she said. Reimers' group has contracts with Pebble Partnership but she said that is not the reason that it got involved.
The ballot group claims polling it has done has shown an overwhelming majority in favor of the initiative but elections depend on turnout. About 380 of the 1,190 registered voters in the borough voted in the last municipal election. Elections are conducted by mail. They must be postmarked by Tuesday but results aren't expected until the canvass board meets Oct. 17.
Heatwole declined to speculate on what impact the vote may have on Pebble's plans.
Save Our Salmon spokesman Art Hackney said the measure "is clearly aimed at making Pebble Mine confront what they've promised: that they won't kill salmon streams. If they can engineer it so it does not destroy salmon streams, by all means they can develop it." He added: "Our contention is simply that this is trying to cast in concrete what Pebble Partnership has been saying all along, they won't hurt salmon."
The proposed mine has attracted worldwide attention. Actor and director Robert Redford has blogged about it, and spoke out against the mine in an ad in the New York Times.
More than 200 chefs from around the country have sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency protesting the mine.And some of the nation's leading jewelers, including Zale Corp., Tiffany & Co., Helzberg Diamonds and Ben Bridge, have pledged to support the "No Dirty Gold" campaign and not purchase precious minerals from Pebble Mine.