Juneau Empire

Legislation filed to require commissioner consensus on Pebble

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.

EDITORIAL: Alaska’s prison system is killing Alaskans

Joseph Murphy was having a bad morning. On Aug. 14, he woke up in jail. The night before, with a blood-alcohol level of 0.165 percent, he had been taken to Lemon Creek Correctional Center for his own protection and left alone in a cell under the supervision of a camera. When he woke up, he was sober and angry. He wanted out. He wanted to go home. He had been accused of no crime, and under state law, he should have been allowed to leave. He was not. He grew angrier. He banged his cell door and shouted to be let out. His chest started to hurt — he had heart problems and was taking medication. A corrections officer stopped by his cell and told him to knock off the banging and suck it up. He would be getting out soon. Murphy asked for his heart pills. Tempers flared. Murphy and the corrections officer started shouting at each other, swearing at each other. Murphy’s chest hurt worse. “I don’t care,” the corrections officer told Murphy. “You could die right now, and I don’t care.” They swore some more at each other, and the corrections officer left. Murphy, locked in his cell, paced back and forth. He was sweating. Six minutes after the corrections officer left, Murphy collapsed to his hands and knees. He got up again, and fell again. He did not get up. Twenty-nine minutes after the corrections officer left Murphy, another arrived to deliver breakfast. On the floor of the cell was Murphy, dead. He is not alone. Since Gov. Bill Walker took office in December, 15 people have died in Alaska’s prisons. Joseph Murphy’s last minutes are recounted in the report released Monday by a pair of special investigators appointed by Gov. Bill Walker. The investigators’ report is damning. It finds comprehensive problems and mistakes by the Alaska Department of Corrections. It finds that corrections officers, at times understaffed, undertrained and mismanaged, have violated the rights of guilty and innocent Alaskans alike. Simply listing the problems shows their extent: • Correctional officers repeatedly violated inmates’ legal due process rights; • Drunken and intoxicated people were held in protective custody for illegal lengths of time; • Investigations of inmate deaths were not conducted properly; • Several juveniles have been kept in solitary confinement for more than a year; • Newly hired corrections officers sometimes go months without attending the training academy; • Medical and mental health employees do not report to prison superintendents; • Many prison policies have not been updated since the 1980s; • Correctional officers were not adequately searched for contraband; • Misconduct by corrections officers and management was not always punished. We cannot help but think that all of these problems — every single one, including the death of Joseph Murphy — were avoidable. In the past few years, the Juneau Empire and the Alaska Dispatch News have repeatedly investigated the surge in prison deaths that has afflicted Alaska. Again and again, we have requested information about these deaths and about the practices of Department of Corrections. We have investigated the problems reported by inmates and we have covered the actions of the state ombudsman in responding to complaints about the prison system. Almost inevitably, our reporting has been met by a stone wall of silence from the Department of Corrections. The department has repeatedly denied our requests for information, for comments, for simple reports about what exactly happened. The Department of Corrections is a public agency. It is supposed to be answerable to all Alaskans. Instead, it concealed its actions with silence and denials, and now 15 people are dead because no one knew what was killing them. It was neglect — sheer neglect on the part of administrators past and present, those who cared more about protecting their jobs and concealing shame than fixing problems. Inadequate training and staffing, coupled with outdated policies and a culture of secrecy have allowed an infection of mistakes to turn septic. We fully expect criminal charges to be brought against some members of the Department of Corrections as a result of their negligence, and based on the reports we have read, those charges will be amply deserved. That’s not to say all corrections employees are to blame. Just as there were a few who didn’t follow the rules, there are many more who have served dutifully in their roles. It would be easy — and wrong — to simply say that these are inmates and that they should not have committed the crimes that landed them in jail. Joseph Murphy was no criminal. He had not committed a crime, and yet our prison system and its policies killed him just as surely as if he had been hanged on the steps of our capitol building. On Monday, Walker accepted the resignation of corrections commissioner Ron Taylor, a good-natured man whom Walker himself appointed to the job in January. Now comes Walt Monegan, a man whose integrity was shown during the Troopergate scandal of Gov. Sarah Palin. Monegan faces a mammoth task, but it is a necessary and urgent one. Alaskans are quite literally dying as a result of problems in the Department of Corrections.
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