- Associated Press - Sunday, October 2, 2011

JUNEAU, Alaska — The battle over a copper-and-gold mine near one of the world’s premier salmon fisheries is headed to the ballot in a vote that has turned a normally sleepy local election into a national environmental debate.

Voters in southwest Alaska’s Lake and Peninsula Borough are deciding whether to ban large-scale resource extraction activity, including mining, that would destroy or degrade salmon habitat. The measure is aimed squarely at Pebble Mine, the massive gold-and-copper prospect near the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

The debate surrounding Pebble has attracted the attention of chefs, Robert Redford and big-name jewelers who have vowed not to sell any gold coming from the project. But Tuesday’s vote will almost certainly not be the last word on how — or whether — the mine is built.

“Among other things, the question in front of the Lake and Peninsula voters is about changes to land use that the Alaska attorney general says is unenforceable as a matter of law,” said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble Limited Partnership, the group promoting the mine project.

Pebble Partnership sued to keep the “Save the Salmon” initiative off the ballot, arguing in part that the measure would improperly bypass the role of the local planning commission.

State court Judge John Suddock denied that request, noting Alaska’s Supreme Court has given deference to initiatives absent proof they would do something unlawful. He put the case on hold until Nov. 7, to allow for the vote and challenges.

The vote is the latest skirmish in the fight over a project that supporters say could create up to 1,000 long-term jobs in economically depressed rural Alaska but that opponents fear could fundamentally change the landscape and disrupt, if not destroy, a way of life.

The mine is a joint venture of Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and Anglo American PLC of the United Kingdom.

The companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars scoping out the deposit, which Northern Dynasty has described as the largest undeveloped deposit of its type in the world, with the potential of producing 53 billion pounds of copper, 50 million ounces of gold and 2.8 billion pounds of molybdenum over nearly 80 years.

The mine would be directly above Iliamna Lake, the largest producer of sockeye salmon in the world.

This year, the commercial harvest of salmon was valued at nearly $138 million, which doesn’t include fish caught by Alaska Natives for subsistence. The Bristol Bay Native Corp., which has more than 8,000 shareholders with ties to the region, is opposed to the mine.

Jason Metrokin, Bristol Bay Native Corp.’s chief executive, recently said in a statement that Pebble presents an “unacceptable risk to Bristol Bay salmon, which have supported our communities for thousands of years” while providing an important commercial, food and cultural resource.

Pebble Mine would be located 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and has been described as potentially the world’s largest man-made excavation. Though Mr. Heatwole said Pebble hasn’t completed a pre-feasibility study or formally submitted a mine plan, critics say the potential footprint of the project could cover 15 square miles, with an open pit and network of roads and power lines.

“It’s not a NIMBY thing so much as a survival thing,” said Scott Kendall, an Anchorage attorney for the Save Our Salmon ballot group. He likened it to putting a nuclear plant next to an elementary school. “To these people, it’s completely inappropriate and incompatible with the life they want to live.”

The region around Bristol Bay is sparsely populated, dotted by small communities mostly cut off from the road system and generally accessible only by plane. About 1,600 people live in Lake and Peninsula Borough, which is roughly the size of West Virginia, covering about 23,780 square miles.