Judge sides with state in Pebble Mine lawsuit

Juneau, Alaska (AP) October 2011

A Superior Court judge has sided with the state in a legal battle over the Pebble Mine project.

Judge Eric Aarseth, in a written ruling, found that the state was not required to give public notice before issuing exploratory permits for the project site. He also found the state didn’t need to study the potential impacts of the activity first.

The plaintiffs, who include a coalition of Alaska Native village corporations, are considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court. Attorney General John J. Burns and the Pebble Limited Partnership, which is pursuing development of the world-class gold and copper prospect, lauded Aarseth’s decision. Pebble was an intervener in the case, supporting the state.

The case dates to 2009, with the coalition Nunamta Aulukestai and several individuals alleging that the state Department of Natural Resources violated provisions of Alaska’s Constitution by allowing for exploration to occur over 20 years without public notice or advance study of the potential impacts of the work. They claimed there had been damage to the resources in the region due to the activity.

“No amount of compensation will restore the land, the wildlife and the waters at the Pebble Project area to what they were before mining exploration started,” plaintiff Ricky Delkittie Sr. said in a statement.

But Aarseth, in a 154-page opinion, said the plaintiffs failed to prove their case. He said the permits in question did not trigger constitutional requirements for public notice or analyses by the state prior to their issuance. He said based on evidence at trial, it is more likely than not that the exploration-related activities “did not cause any significant impact or long-term harm to concurrent uses.”

Aarseth found that exploration activity hasn’t excluded hunting guides and that drilling and discharges haven’t affected water quality to the detriment of fish.

A statement released by Pebble’s spokesman said the company intends “to continue conducting a careful, responsible study program as we proceed to design a project that will create enormous opportunity for Alaskans, especially for the residents of Southwest Alaska.”

The project has been at the center of an intense PR battle, with supporters saying it has the potential to create good jobs and opponents worried it could fundamentally alter the landscape and disrupt, if not destroy, a way of life in rural Alaska. The prospect is near the headwaters of Bristol Bay, a premier commercial sockeye salmon fishery.