Bans on mining activities stripped from salmon initiative; still a lot left

Alaska’s supreme court ruled on the state’s challenge to Ballot Measure 1, the salmon initiative, stripping some sections but allowing the bulk of the measure to appear before voters in November elections. The justices took out sections effectively banning large mines – the initiative is mainly aimed at blocking Pebble – but what is left creates a lot of problems for construction affecting water bodies. Some of the largest impacts will be on state highway projects, which are often in valleys near streams. “Stand for Alaska,” a pro-development group, will continue to campaign for defeat of the proposal by voters. Stand for Salmon, supporting the proposal, will campaign for it.

What’s left in the salmon initiative?

In its decision on the salmon ballot measure the state supreme court removed sections from proposed Ballot Measure 1 (the initiative) that would have effectively blocked large-scale mining projects, including bans on storage and disposal of mine tailings, diversion of streams and a prohibition against activities causing “substantial” or permanent damage to streams. What remains, however, is a new permit procedure replacing the current Title VI habitat permits for projects built along rivers, streams and adjacent wetlands.

A presumption that most water bodies in the state are anadromous, or supporting migrating fish, is also approved. Currently the state Dept. Of Fish and Game conducts surveys of rivers and streams and compiles a list of anadromous streams. Stand for Salmon argues this is inadequate and that because of constraints in the fish and game department budget only half the salmon-bearing streams in the state are on the list. The ballot proposition flips this, so that all water bodies are presumed anadromous unless proven not to be. The burden of proving that a water body does not support anadromous fish, however, falls on whoever proposes an activity, who would bear the cost of field tests required. Most of the impacts of the ballot measure, if it were to be passed by voters, would be on the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which does construction and major maintenance on roads and highway near rivers and streams.

Salmon measure proponents feel court left its objectives intact

Stand for Salmon, meanwhile, feels the supreme court left its key objective intact, mainly a higher regard for fish habitat in the state’s permitting system along with explicit standards for protection of streams set out in state law. Those include maintaining water quality and temperature in anadromous streams; maintaining an adequate flow of water; protecting waters and wetlands that connect with anadromous streams; ensuring the stability of banks along streams and water bodies, and ensuring the diversity of aquatic habitat supporting streams.

The group opposing Ballot Measure 1, Stand for Alaska, said the modified initiative leaves the new permit system intact and contains terms that are vague and that will have to be clarified by regulation, which themselves may be contested in court. The new “major anadromous fish habitat permit” would replace the fairly simple stream-crossing permits now issued by the state Dept. of Fish and Game with a new system of “major” and “minor” permits for crossings or activities that affect streams or water bodies. There is also a provision for “minor” permits, for more routine activities along streams.

Key terms in ballot measure are vague, requiring regulations

What constitutes a major vs. minor permit, however, is unclear in the ballot language and would have to be spelled out in regulations, but a key concern for development groups is that the major permits would require an analysis of alternatives, a kind of mini-Environmental Impact Statement. The Commissioner of Fish and Game’s decision in approving a major permit would be subject to appeals.

Donlin Gold federal permits okayed

 The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved a Record of Decision on the big Donlin Gold project near the Kuskokwim River west of Anchorage. Major federal permits for the mine were issued by the corps and a pipeline right-of-way lease was approved by the BLM. The pipeline will bring natural gas from Cook Inlet to the mine.

Barrick Gold and NovaGold Resources, the mine owners, said they will now update an economic feasibility study. A decision to build the mine would likely be made in 2019. If built, the project would employ 3,000 in construction and create about 1,500 operations jobs, the Army corps said. Calista Corp. is the owner of subsurface resource rights while surface lands are owned by The Kuskokwim Corp., a consortium of village corporations in the region.


Fort Knox mine expansion kicks off

 Kinross Gold held its official groundbreaking Aug. 15 for the expansion of the Fort Knox gold mine, extending the mine life to at least 2030. The state’s Alaska Mental Health Trust, the landowner at the mine, will receive additional revenue because of the expansion, and already has received more than $24 million from Fort Knox. The trust supports mental health programs. The mine expansion required transferring the 709-acre Gilmore parcel, adjacent to the existing mine, from the federal government to  state ownership. Fort Knox employs about 630 people.

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