Voters Pass Initiative Aimed At Stopping Alaska Mine

Voters in southwest Alaska have narrowly passed an initiative aimed at stopping an open pit copper and gold mine. The proposed Pebble Mine is near one of the largest sockeye salmon spawning areas. But whether digging continues will likely be decided in the Alaska State Supreme Court.

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And now to a story from southwest Alaska. Voters there have narrowly passed an initiative aimed at stopping a huge gold and copper mining operation. The proposed Pebble Mine is near one of the world's largest sockeye salmon spawning areas, but as Daysha Eaton of member station KDLG reports, the fight to block the mine isn't over yet.

DAYSHA EATON, BYLINE: Environmentalists and conservation groups are celebrating a victory after the Save Our Salmon initiative passed Monday. Anders Gustafson is the executive director of the Anchorage-based Renewable Resources Coalition, an organization that's brought together commercial, sport and subsistence fishers in opposition to the development of the giant gold and copper prospect. He says, despite a close margin, the vote should be a wakeup call for the mining companies.

ANDERS GUSTAFSON: The bottom line is the majority of the people in the region have taken a strong stance and passed an initiative that should send a strong signal to administrative folks at Anglo-American and Northern Dynasty that they're not welcome here.

EATON: Voter turnout was high, more than 50 percent. The ballot measure passed by just 34 votes. Mike Heatwole is a spokesman for the Pebble partnership and represents the mining companies. He sees the narrow margin as a good sign.

MIKE HEATWOLE: A lot of folks are taking second, third, maybe fourth looks at where we are with the project and the economic opportunity that it may present if it can live up to the high environmental standards that the state and federal government has on the books for a project like this.

EATON: Heatwole says the mining companies hope the courts will overturn the initiative. Trefon Angasan represents Alaska natives closest to the proposed mine. He opposes the initiative because he believes fishing jobs are on the decline for local people and the mine would bring economic development.

TREFON ANGASAN: They've ruled out oil and gas because of the environmental issues. Now, they're ruling out hard rock mining. The only way that they can survive is to move on to a different life away from their homes, and once that happens we've lost the community forever.

EATON: Now, the initiative is headed back to court. The group developing the mine is challenging its legality. Alaska's attorney general argues the initiative would be unenforceable. The Constitution gives the legislature, not boroughs, authority over the development of state resources.

For NPR News, I'm Daysha Eaton in Dillingham, Alaska.

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