State Supreme Court Hears Case To Remove Pebble Initiative From Ballot

(Alexandra Gutierrez/Alaska Public Media)
(Alexandra Gutierrez/Alaska Public Media)

The health of the Bristol Bay watershed and its salmon fishery is an issue of statewide importance: That’s the position the State of Alaska took when defending its decision to certify a citizen’s initiative that would add another obstacle to the development of Pebble Mine.

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Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar presented the State’s case before the Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday.

“The mineral deposits and fisheries in the Bristol Bay fisheries reserve impact all Alaskans,” argued Bakalar. “They don’t just belong to or impact the people living in that region.”

The Alaska Miners Association and Council of Alaska Producers are behind the lawsuit. Their goal is to remove the Bristol Bay Forever initiative from the November ballot. The measure would add another layer of scrutiny to the proposed Pebble Mine beyond the permitting process by requiring legislative approval of large-scale mining operations in the region. (The Legislature is already obligated to sign off on oil and gas operations in the Bristol Bay area.)

The miners’ attorney, Matt Singer, held that the initiative circumvents the Legislature’s authority to delegate land management decisions to state agencies. He also argued that because the initiative only focuses on Bristol Bay instead of mining operations throughout the state, it is unconstitutional.

“We don’t regulate land and environmental decisions by balkanizing those decisions — by regionalizing those decisions — unless we’re seeking to solve a problem that cannot be addressed by a general law,” said Singer.

Justice Craig Stowers pressed Singer on that point.

“My question is, if we have statewide interest in the minerals and fisheries in this world-class watershed, in this world-class fishery, isn’t that enough in establishing general applicability — or general interest, statewide interest — putting aside the purpose statement of the initiative?” asked Stowers.

The lawsuit was filed shortly after the State certified the initiative in 2012, and has stretched on for about a year and half. The Fairbanks Superior Court sided with the State on the matter in February, and the Supreme Court justices would have to reverse that ruling for the measure to be removed from the ballot.

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