Approving Alaska’s Controversial Pebble Mine Just Got Harder, Thanks To A Ballot Measure Victory

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bureau of Land Management

This June. 12, 2003 photo provided by the Bureau of Land Management shows a stream flowing through the Bristol Bay, Alaska watershed. Trout Unlimited and nearly 300 other groups are asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to direct the Bureau of Land Management to protect the Bristol Bay watershed that is the home to the world's most productive wild salmon streams by closing federal lands to mining.

A controversial copper and gold mine in Alaska got an added layer of scrutiny Tuesday night, when a ballot measure that enables the state’s legislature to ban the project passed.

Sixty-five percent of Alaskan voters voted in favor of Ballot Measure Four, known as the Bristol Bay Forever Initiative, which gives Alaska’s state legislature the power to approve or reject Pebble mine, a huge copper and gold mine proposed for southern Alaska. Before the ballot measure passed, mining permits were considered only by state and federal agencies. Now, in order for the Pebble mine project to move forward, it must gain approval from the state’s legislature, and in order to grant approval, the legislature must find that the project would not harm the region’s salmon industry.

Pebble mine has become a deeply contentious issue in Alaska, largely due to the project’s environmentally destructive potential. The mine, which would be one of the largest in the world, is proposed for a copper, gold, and molybdenum sulfide deposit on Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The region is known for its wild salmon populations: Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, and chum silver and king salmon also run through the area. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed to protect Bristol Bay, rather than allow mining to take place there.

“Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse,” Dennis McLerran, Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10, which includes Alaska, said in July. “The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems. Bristol Bay’s exceptional fisheries deserve exceptional protection….simply put, this is a uniquely large mine in a uniquely important place.”

Mining in Bristol bay would create up 10.8 billion tons of waste rock, and massive dams would be required to store the liquid waste tailings from the mine. In January, the EPA released an assessment of major mining in Bristol Bay that found that, if a tailings dam failed in the region, it could wreak havoc on the surrounding ecosystem. The agency also found that a mine project like Pebble could destroy up to 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds.

Due to these environmental concerns, Pebble mine’s road to approval has been bumpy so far. In April, London-based mining company Rio Tinto dropped its 19.1 percent stake in the mine, a decision that followed similar moves in 2011 by Mitsubishi Corporation and in 2013 by mining company Anglo American. In 2010, 50 jewelers came out in opposition of the mine, pledging that, if the mine is approved, they wouldn’t use gold from it. The company pushing the Pebble mine, Pebble Limited Partnership, tried to sue the EPA this year, but in September, an Alaska judge threw the lawsuit out.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) has opposed the project, but Republican challenger Dan Sullivan, who has advocated for the Pebble mine, won Begich’s Senate seat Tuesday.