JUNEAU — A measure intended to add roadblocks for Pebble mine got its first hearing Jan. 31 in the Legislature.
House Bill 14, proposed by Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, would require the Legislature to approve any permitting documents or authorizations for mines within the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve.
Pebble Mine, proposed for the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, is within the reserve.
Speaking to the House Special Committee on Fisheries, Josephson said his goal was to strengthen a ballot initiative passed by voters in 2014.
Ballot Measure 4, approved by two-thirds of voters, gives the Legislature the final say on Pebble Mine and any other “large-scale metallic sulfide mines” considered for the fisheries reserve. Josephson’s bill would require the Legislature to approve each step of the permitting process, not just sign off at the end.
“This takes the intent of the initiative and makes it stronger. I’m confident it does that,” Josephson said.
Last year, Pebble Mine appeared to be dead. It had been abandoned by Rio Tinto and Anglo American, two of the world’s largest mining companies, and was fiercely opposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and fishing groups across Alaska.
The mine’s fortunes changed with the election of President Donald Trump, who is proposing to appoint an EPA director who favors “regulatory rollback.”
On Jan. 31, Josephson said that if the EPA is no longer willing to be a watchdog, that duty will fall to Alaskans.
“Now, we can be the bulwark,” Josephson said.
The EPA’s preliminary reports about the mine, drafted during the administration of President Barack Obama, found that the mine’s construction would have significant effects on the Bristol Bay salmon run, the world’s largest wild run.
“It’s going to rest upon our shoulders, not the federal government’s, to protect this fishery,” Josephson said.
Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, asked whether it made sense for the Legislature, an organization with limited mine permitting experience, to judge projects.
“This is the most important environmental fisheries decision in Alaska’s history, in my opinion. If there’s a little bit more effort involved in that, I’m OK with that,” Josephson said.
Speaking against the bill was Deantha Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.
She cautioned that the 2014 ballot measure — and by extension Josephson’s bill —might be illegal because they could act as a legislative veto of a permitting decision made by the executive branch, which is led by the governor.
That could run afoul of the Alaska Constitution’s separation-of-powers provisions.
Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, agreed with Crockett’s assessment as he spoke to the committee by phone.
The bill was held in committee, and no additional hearings have yet been scheduled.
House Bill 14, would also require that before the Legislature weighs in, the commissioners of Natural Resources, Environmental Conservation and Fish and Game each determine that mine backers have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that their operations will not be a danger to the fishery, fish or wildlife in the region.
The bill doesn’t mention Pebble by name, and Josephson said there are a number of large claims in the area. But he said the bill has a lot to do with Pebble, a massive copper and gold prospect that’s been closely watched, and debated, for years.
Critics of Josephson’s proposal raised concerns about politicizing the permitting process. During a legislative hearing Jan. 31, questions were raised, too, about the constitutionality of the initiative.
Heatwole also testified that the bill would add more levels of bureaucracy to the permitting process.
“This really is an unprecedented level of scrutiny for any project,” he said.
Josephson points to the Bristol Bay region as a special area.
“At some point, the state might just very well permit this stuff. And I don’t have confidence that the state has the manpower or the expertise to monitor a dam for, you know, 1,000 years,” he said in an interview.
It’s not clear what traction Josephson’s bill might get. Before voters passed the initiative, legislative proposals to place restrictions on large-scale mines in the Bristol Bay area or to require legislative approval prior to permitting went nowhere.