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Don't rush to judge Pebble

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Posted: Sunday, July 15, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 10:37 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Community perspective

Recently some pundits and state legislators have taken me and other state officials to task. Our sin? We had the temerity to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to issue an unprecedented and, in our view, premature “Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment” of a hypothetical large-scale mining project in the Bristol Bay area.

As a third-generation Alaskan, I put my faith in Alaska and its reidents in making decisions concerning the responsible development of our state’s resources. I am not “for” or “against” the Pebble Mine. I am not a scientist or an engineer, and I don’t believe I am qualified to evaluate its merits — though that hasn’t stopped many other people from jumping on the anti-Pebble bandwagon.

What I am “for,” and what I hope all Alaskans are for, is the responsible development and management of our state’s resources for the benefit of all Alaskans, and the protection of Alaska’s rights as a state to do so without encroachment by the federal government.

In passing the Alaska Statehood Act in 1958, Congress made a compact with the new state, fully expecting that Alaska would select lands with resource development potential, and that Alaska would seek to develop those resources for the economic well-being of the state and its citizens. Indeed, the lands in the Pebble project area were selected by the state in part because of their mineral resource potential, and they have been managed since their selection for multiple uses, including mineral development.

The delegates who drafted the Alaska Constitution understood the importance of the land and resources that would be acquired upon statehood, and that the development of natural resources was essential to the state’s future. Article VIII of the constitution charges the state with providing for “the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources … for the maximum benefit of its people” — and this would certainly include the abundant fisheries in Bristol Bay. These constitutional principles and the statehood compact form the backbone of any decision the state makes regarding its resources, including the Pebble Mine. Speaking for myself, I take these responsibilities very seriously.

Instead of trusting in our constitution and the permitting processes set out in multiple state and federal statutes and regulations, some individuals and groups advocate preemptively stopping the Pebble Mine before a specific, detailed project is even proposed, much less thoroughly evaluated.

As with any resource development project, a proposed project and associated permit application triggers rigorous federal and state evaluation, including extensive environmental reviews. The same processes should apply to the Pebble Mine, no matter how vocal the opposition. To do otherwise undermines the predictability of the permitting process for any future resource and infrastructure development project in Alaska.

With the EPA’s recent release of its draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, there is increased cause for concern. The rush to judgment in the absence of a detailed proposal and permit application should concern all Alaskans.

We do not yet know what form that mine will take and what precautions and mitigation measures the company will propose for the project. Once the proposal is evaluated, the state and federal agencies will have to determine whether to permit a mine and whether protections are in place that would protect what is a world-class salmon fishery.

But the current course advocated by certain pundits and state legislators prematurely and unwisely condemns the project before this evaluation can even take place. I would urge Alaskans — including those who want to shut down the Pebble project — to think of the bigger picture and what implications the EPA’s novel and premature assessment presents, not only for the Pebble project, but for other potential resource and infrastructure projects within our great state.

Michael Geraghty, raised in Fairbanks, is Alaska’s attorney general.

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