Ballot Measure 4: Alaskan Voters Churned Up Over Bristol Bay

Ballot Measure 4 touches on a familiar topic to many Alaskans – the Bristol Bay.  The bay is a 36,000 square mile fisheries reserve established by the Alaska state legislature in 1972.  As part of the legislation it required that a surface entry permit for oil and gas on state owned or controlled lands be subject to approval of the legislature to protect the fishery.  Proposed Ballot Measure 4 would establish a new law requiring the Alaska legislature to approve future large-scale metallic sulfide mines within the watershed of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. 

Under the ballot measure language large-scale metallic sulfide mines are defined as mines that would, “extract metals, including gold and copper, from sulfide-bearing rock and that would directly disturb 640 or more acres of land.”  Additionally, under the Measure the entire Bristol Bay watershed is to be considered. 

The Bristol Bay is known for its interconnected lakes, rivers, and streams supplying roughly half of the world’s supply of sockeye salmon.  The annual impact of the fisheries is estimated between $318 and $578 million annually and the industry supports 10,000 jobs according to economic study done by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.   Annual harvest averages 24.6 million sockeye salmon contributing 31% to Alaska’s salmon harvest. 

The Measure 4 campaign is Alaska’s most expensive of the ballot measure campaigns with organized supporters of the measure, the Bristol Bay Forever group, spending just over $1.2 million according to the latest campaign disclosure report.  No formal group has filed opposing the measure; however there is opposition. 

A 2010 state law requires each judicial district of the state be afforded two or more opportunities to learn about upcoming ballot measures 30 days before the election.  Each hearing must include one supporter and one opponent of the initiative.   

Supporters of Measure 4 cite the importance of the genetic diversity among the salmon populations, the importance to the overall resource, and the cultural and economic benefits of the fishery. The argument is metallic sulfide mining has the potential to adversely affect these salmon populations because the mining byproducts could alter the water chemistry or introduce pollution to the watershed.   Supporters believe passing the measure would add an extra level of necessary review.

Opponents of the Measure argue there are already the necessary protections under state and federal mining and environmental permit requirements.  Many of these permitting processes require public input to be gathered and considered before final permits are issued.  The permitting can also require baseline studies, bonding requirements, and plans for ongoing environmental monitoring (some monitoring can be in perpetuity).  Opponents argue the proposed measure has the potential to allow the final decision of a mine’s existence to become political.

Measure 4 includes more land area than the 1972 law where legislators are allowed to review oil and gas permits only on state owned or controlled land.  This point specifically has raised questions of constitutionality of the proposed measure as expressed by the Alaska Miners Association as reported by the Alaska Commons.   

There has been no polling on ballot measure 4 specifically; however a 2008 measure that attempted to curtail discharge of toxic materials from large metallic mines failed 56% to 43%.   The measure was largely aimed at the development of the Pebble Project, a proposed copper-gold mine located on state land in Bristol Bay area.   In July under 404c of the Clean Water Act, the EPA issued a proposed determination to restrict use of areas as disposal sites for fill materials, which would effectively block the Pebble Mine from being developed.  How, and if, this effects voter’s attitudes towards the current ballot measure 4 may be answered after the November 4 ballots are cast.