Alaskans in the primary election will vote on Ballot Measure 4, an initiative that opponents say will kill large-scale mining in Alaska but supporters say will save Bristol Bay's wild salmon streams from a toxic spill at the proposed Pebble Mine.
Supporters of Ballot Measure 4 say it is needed to protect the world's most productive wild salmon streams from Pebble, a huge gold and copper deposit in southwest Alaska.
"It is deceptive and defective this ballot measure," said Cynthia Toohey, campaign chairwoman for Alaskans Against the Mining Shutdown, the group leading the opposition. "I am concerned it will shut down all mining."
Opponents claim that the initiative poses a serious threat to Alaska's economy. They say mining accounts for over 5,500 jobs and nearly $200 million a year in state and local tax revenues.
Supporters say the bigger threat is to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, which they say provides over 12,000 jobs and contributes over $250 million annually to Alaska's economy.
They say one toxic spill from the mine could permanently damage the state's reputation for producing untainted, healthy fish.
"Location, location, location," said Dave Atcheson, a commercial fisherman and member of the Renewable Resources Coalition, when asked why he is opposed to the mine. "It is too great a resource to risk."
Measure would set water quality
The initiative would impose two water quality standards on any new large-scale mines in Alaska. If passed, it would restrict large, new mines from releasing toxic pollutants into water that would adversely affect the health of humans or salmon.
The ballot measure defines toxic pollutants as substances that will cause death and disease in humans and fish. It lists dozens of substances, including ammonia, arsenic, asbestos, benzene, cadmium, chlorine, copper, chromium, cyanide, sulfuric acid, toluene, vinyl chloride and zinc.
Alaskans Against the Mining Shutdown has received nearly all of its contributions from the Council of Alaska Producers, a group of mining companies. The Pebble Partnership, a coalition of the two mining companies trying to develop Pebble, is a large contributor to the Council of Alaska Producers, giving them over $3 million dollars in July.
On the other side is Alaskans for Clean Water, Inc., a group that includes commercial and sport fishermen, some Alaska Natives, lodge owners, hunters and others.
Alaskans for Clean Water has received under $1 million this summer, with the Alexandria, Va.-based Americans for Job Security, a pro-jobs, anti-tax organization, contributing a large amount of money, at least $750,000 in the weeks ahead of the election.
Two companies — Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals — are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop Pebble. Preliminary drilling indicates Pebble is a world-class deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum.
Pebble Partnership Chief Executive John Shively said he isn't sure what the impact would be on Pebble if the ballot measure passes.
"If it does stop Pebble, it can't just stop one mine. It has to affect more than one mine and that is the thing that the mining industry is so concerned about," he said.
Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said if the measure passes, bringing into question existing regulations, it will create uncertainty in Alaska's mining industry.
"We are competing with the world for exploration funding to the extent it scares companies away, that is bad for Alaska," he said.
Specific to new mines in salmon areas
Art Hackney, the ballot measure's main sponsor, said opponents are using scare tactics and misinformation to try and defeat the initiative. For example, their claim that the initiative would impact the Red Dog zinc mine near Kotzebue and other existing mines is false, he said.
The measure, he said, applies only to new mines that are seeking permits in areas where salmon spawn.
And that is the problem with Pebble, he said.
"There is no sulfide mine, large scale like Pebble anywhere on the planet, that has not polluted all the water around it," Hackney said.
The measure also would not allow the mining operation to store mining wastes and tailings that could release sulfuric acid, other acids, dissolved metals or other toxic pollutants that could harm water quality.
Northern Dynasty has filed permits to build several earthen dams to store mining waste from Pebble. One would be taller than the Hoover Dam.
The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 26.