Category Archives: Pebble Mine / Bristol Bay Ballot Measure 4 / Prop. 4

Gov. Sarah Palin’s Hand Seen in Battle Over Mine in Alaska; Everyone Ticked Off at Sarah (Video)

In an exclusive in-depth article by Michael Powell and Jo Becker for the New York Times, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s involvement and influence in the Bristol Bay / Pebble Mine controversy has left many Alaskans shaking their heads in dismay.

EKWOK, Alaska – Two years ago, Sarah Palin landed near this tiny native village and spoke of her love for the vast and starkly beautiful delta that drains into Bristol Bay.

“I am a commercial fisherman; my daughter’s name is Bristol,” said Ms. Palin, then a candidate for governor. “I could not support a project that risks one resource that we know is a given, and that is the world’s richest spawning grounds, over another resource.”

Many here took her words to heart. But as governor, Ms. Palin has helped ease the way for a proposed copper and gold mine of near-mythic proportions at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the world’s greatest spawning ground for wild salmon.

If state regulators give their approval, mining companies plan to carve an open pit that would rival the world’s largest mines, descending half a mile and taking as much energy to operate daily as the city of Anchorage. That prospect has ignited a war between Alaska’s two historic industries, mining and fishing.

Scientists and former state and federal biologists warn that toxic residue from the project, known as Pebble Mine, would irreparably harm a centuries-old salmon fishing industry that employs 17,000 and hauls in $100 million annually.

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The Book of Sarah (Palin): Contractors Awarded Wasilla Sports Complex Contract Built New Palin Family Home?!?! (Video)

Sarah Palin winking to the cameras.

Sarah Palin winking to the cameras.

Wayne Barrett, investigative journalist and senior editor for the Village Voice, published a brilliantly illuminating exposé on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and the building of her new Wasilla family home by the same contractors awarded the contract to build the new, multi-million dollar Wasilla sports complex.  Also, throughout Sarah Palin’s political career, she has worked closely with lobbyists, promoting the interests of big business and oil corporations.  Barrett was interviewed by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann on Countdown as to the possible conflicts of interest these connections might have posed for Gov. Palin.

Along with the winks and folksy “doggone” moments early in her debate with Joe Biden last week, Sarah Palin repeated her familiar claim to the title of “maverick,” declaring that “as a governor and as a mayor,” she’s had a “track record of reform” and has now “joined a team of mavericks.”

Despite the free fall that her polling numbers went into after her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric, that branding as a “reformer” has been resilient. Introduced skillfully before tens of millions during an intense surge of interest six weeks ago, it’s been hammered home with repeated soundbites.

But the label doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. From the controversy that catapulted her to the governorship, to her ties to the indicted patriarch of Alaska’s GOP, to the multilayered nexus of lobbyists and Big Oil interests around her, and, finally, to the Wasilla sports complex that capped her mayoral career, the myth of Sarah Palin, reformer, withers under inspection.

Wasilla, Alaska Sports Complex

Wasilla, Alaska Sports Complex

PALIN’S CLAIM to fame as an Alaska reformer-that she risked her career to expose the chairman of the state GOP-is revisionist. In fact, Palin supported the methane-drilling project that helped sink GOP boss Randy Ruedrich before she later decided she was against it-a mirror of her flip-flop on the infamous Bridge to Nowhere. And her reversal had more to do with seizing a political opportunity than following her conscience.

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Sarah Palin: The View from Alaska – Amid Troopergate and Other Government Scandals, including Killing Wolf Pups, the Palin Phenomenon Rings Hollow in Alaska

The beauty of nature ... an aurora display near Fairbanks, Alaska

Amid “Troopergate” and other government scandals, including killing wolf pups, Alaskan writer Nick Jans explains why the Palin phenomenon rings hollow in his home state.

I sat on the bank of the Kobuk River in northwest arctic Alaska on a mid-September morning. Upstream somewhere, wolves were howling – their chorus filling the silence, close enough that I could hear the aspiration at the end of each wavering call. Behind me, the slate-gray heave of the Brooks Range spilled off toward the north, the shapes of some peaks so familiar I’ve seen them in my sleep. The nearest highway lay 250 miles away. This is the Alaska where I spent half my life, and the only place that’s ever felt like home – the land of Eskimo villages, waves of migrating caribou and seemingly limitless space.

Though I was beyond the reach of the Internet and cellphones, and life was filled with rutting bull moose, incandescent autumn light and fresh grizzly tracks, I knew that thousands of miles to the south, the rest of the country was getting a crash course on our governor, Sarah Palin – someone who believes that climate change isn’t our fault; is dead set against a woman’s right to choose; has supported creationism in the schools; and was prayed over by a visiting minister at her church to shield her against witchcraft.

How was I to explain to all my lower 48 friends and writing colleagues how such a person could have been elected to lead our state – let alone been chosen to possibly become vice-president? Truth be told, I was as startled as anyone when I heard the news. At first I thought the McCain campaign’s announcement was some sort of bad joke.

In the broadest sense, Palin is a poseur. Alaska is too large and culturally diverse (it’s only a bit smaller than the entire lower 48 east of the Mississippi, and once was divided into four time zones) to be summed up by some abstract, romanticized notion. And even if it could be, it sure wouldn’t be symbolized by Palin. “The typical Alaskan? She couldn’t be farther from it,” says Alaska House Minority Leader Beth Kertulla.

Still, Palin is a genuine Alaskan – of a kind. The kind that flowed north in the wake of the ’70s oil boom, Bible Belt politics and attitudes under arm, and transformed this state from a free-thinking, independent bastion of genuine libertarianism and individuality into a reactionary fundamentalist enclave with dollar signs in its eyes and an all-for-me mentality.

Palin’s Alaska is embodied in Wasilla, a blue-collar, sharp-elbowed town of burgeoning big box stores, suburban subdivisions, evangelical pocket churches and car dealerships morphing across the landscape, outward from Anchorage, the state’s urban epicenter. She has lived in Wasilla practically all her life, and even now resides there, the first Alaska executive to eschew the white-pillared mansion in Juneau, down on the Southeast Panhandle.

Folks in the Mat-Su Valley, as the area is known, overwhelmingly support their favorite daughter’s policies – including a state-sanctioned program where private pilots chase down and kill wolves from small aircraft, and another that favors oil drilling offshore in the arctic sea ice and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These same voters forage at McDonald’s and Safeway in their hunter camouflage, and make regular wilderness forays up and down the state’s limited highway grid with ATVs, snowmobiles and airboats in tow behind their oversize trucks. Sometimes I imagine I can hear the roar echoing across the state, all the way to the upper Kobuk, where easements for the highways of tomorrow are already staked out across the tundra.

Like many Alaskans, I resent Palin’s claims that she speaks for all of us, and cringe when she tosses off her stump speech line, “Well, up in Alaska, we….” Not only did I not vote for her, she represents the antithesis of the Alaska I love. As mayor, she helped shape Wasilla into the chaotic, poorly planned strip mall that it is; as governor, she’s promoted that same headlong drive toward development and despoilment on a grand scale, while paying lip service to her love of the place.

As for that frontierswoman shtick, take another look at that hairpiece-augmented beehive and those stiletto heels. Coming from a college-educated family, living in a half-million-dollar view home, basking in a net worth of $1.25 million, and having owned 40-some registered motorized vehicles in the past two decades (including 17 snowmobiles and a plane) hardly qualifies Palin and her clan as the quintessential Joe Six-Pack family unit – though the adulation from that quarter shows the Palins must be fulfilling some sort of role-model fantasy.

Palin can claim to know Alaska; the fact is, she’s seen only a minuscule fraction of it – and that doesn’t include Little Diomede Island, the one place in Alaska where you actually can see Russia. So she can ride an ATV and shoot guns. Set her down in the bush on her own and I bet we’d discover she’s about as adept at butchering a moose and building a fire at 40 below zero as she is at discussing Supreme Court decisions. And that mountain-woman act is only the tip of a hollow iceberg.

Palin, and by extension, the McCain campaign, has hijacked our state for political purposes, much to the chagrin of the tens of thousands of Alaskans who loathe what she stands for. Her much-touted popularity among residents has eroded over the past six weeks to somewhere in the mid-60s – not exactly what you’d expect in support of a home girl making a White House run.

There are no doubt a variety of reasons for this decline, but many Alaskans are embarrassed – not just by her, but for our state and for ourselves. What’s with the smug posturing, recently adopted fake Minnesota accent, and that gosh-darn-it hockey mom pitch? Maybe it plays well in Peoria (and presumably Duluth), but it’s all an act. “She’s definitely put on a new persona since she’s been a vice-presidential candidate,” says Kertulla, who has worked closely with Palin for the past 18 months. “I don’t even recognize her.”

Affectations aside, there’s plenty about Palin we Alaskans do recognize, and all too well. She’s already proven to us that her promises of transparent government, attendant to the will of the people, are bear pucky. We know about her private e-mail accounts and her systematic obstruction of the Alaska Legislature’s investigation of the so-called Troopergate scandal. But let’s turn to her environmental record, where a similar pattern of obfuscation continues.

Alaskan wolf pup outside of den.

Alaskan wolf pup outside of den.

First, Palin pushed hard, along with sport hunting and guiding interests, to help defeat a ballot initiative that would have stopped the state’s current aerial wolf control program, which had been criticized by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council for flawed science. Now her administration has pointedly refused to respond to repeated public information requests (I’m one of the petitioners, and a potential litigant), regarding the apparently illegal killing of 14 wolf pups at their dens on the Alaska Peninsula this spring by state personnel, including two high-level Department of Fish and Game administrators. A biologist at the scene admitted to an independent wolf scientist that the 6-week-old pups were held down and shot in the head, one by one. This inhumane practice, known as “denning,” has been illegal for 40 years. But a simple request for information on the details of this operation, including to what extent the governor was involved in the decision, has resulted in a typical Palinesque roadblock and a string of untruths.

Our I-love-Alaska governor was also instrumental in defeating a ballot initiative to stop development of a gargantuan open-pit mine incongruously known as Pebble near the headwaters of the most productive salmon watershed in the state, Bristol Bay. The current mine design calls for building the world’s largest earthen dam to hold back an enormous lake of toxic waste – this in a known earthquake zone. Crazy stuff, yet Palin openly opposed the initiative, in lock step with international mining corporations that invested millions of dollars in a misinformation campaign.

But Palin’s certified anti-environmental whopper is her lawsuit against the Bush administration (of all outfits) for listing polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. She claimed Alaska’s own experts had completed a review of the federal data and concluded that the listing was uncalled for. The truth was, state biologists had come to the opposite conclusion. But that report was never released, and her researchers had a gag clamped on them. Palin simply didn’t want anything to get in the way of offshore oil drilling in moving pack ice – where there is no way to contain, let alone clean up, catastrophic spills.

Whenever science or rules get in Palin’s way, she blows them off. Says homesteader Mark Richards, co-founder of the Alaska Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (a moderate conservation group), “Palin, like Governor Murkowski before her, is part and parcel of the good-ol-boy network that says, ‘Alaska is open for business.'”

Want to talk to Sarah? As governor, she has been accessible only on her carefully chosen terms, a trend we’re now witnessing on the national stage. And how about those Katie Couric moments when she drifts just a skosh off a well-rehearsed script? Are those a recent phenomenon, brought on by all this new information, pressure and the liberal-gotcha media? Nah. She’s been spouting “political gibberish” (to quote gubernatorial opponent Andrew Halcro) since she arrived on the Alaska scene. Yet somehow she continues to get away with it.

In the end, Palin’s attempt to cash in on the Eau d’Alaska mystique as she supports its destruction sickens those of us who do love this land, not for what it will be some day, after the roads and mines and pipelines and cities and malls are all in, but for what it is now. What we see before us is the soul of an ambitious, ruthless, Parks Highway hillbilly – a woman who represents the Alaska you probably never want to meet, and the one we wish never existed. That said, we’re all too willing to take her back. The alternative is just too damn frightening.

Writer and photographer Nick Jans has lived in Alaska for 30 years. He is the author of “The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell’s Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears,” a member of USA Today’s board of editorial contributors and a contributing editor of Alaska Magazine.

Sarah Palin: The View from Alaska

Sarah Palin’s Alaskan Wasteland: A Look At Governor Palin’s Environmental Record

Shelia Kaplan and Marilyn Berlin Snell, writing for The New Republic, outline Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s environmental record.

There’s no reason to doubt Sarah Palin’s sincerity when she talks about her commitment to family and–more specifically–special-needs kids. When she introduced her son, who has Down syndrome, to the audience at the Republican convention, the family tableau drew cheers. And she issued a promise. “To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message for you,” she told the crowd. “For years, you’ve sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters, and I pledge to you that, if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House.”

Unfortunately, as governor of a state with a birth-defect rate that’s twice the national average, and which has the gloomy status as repository of toxic chemicals from around the world, Palin has pursued environmental policies that seem perfectly crafted to swell the ranks of special-needs kids. It’s true that Alaska’s top leaders have placed industry wishes over environmental protection for years. But, instead of correcting this problem, she’s compounded it. Peer into her environmental record, and Palin ends up looking a lot like George W. Bush.

In the past 20 years, research has shown that exposure to some metals and to chemicals such as pesticides, flame retardants, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can cause birth defects and permanent developmental disorders both prenatally and in the first years of childhood. And Alaska is vulnerable to some of the worst environmental pollutants out there. In a state whose wealth depends on the exploitation of its natural resources, the toxic byproducts of mining and energy development, such as arsenic, mercury, and lead, are particular problems. Alaska Natives, such as the Inuit people, eat a diet that is heavy in fish, seals, and whales–animals that are high on the food chain and therefore more likely to be contaminated with high doses of PCBs and mercury. And the state is vulnerable not only to homegrown pollution, but also to industrial pollution: Trace gases and tiny airborne particles are contaminating the polar regions, carried there on atmospheric and oceanic currents, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The mess of pollutants in Alaska has clearly taken its toll. In general, the state has double the national average of birth defects. While the causes are unknown, environmentalists point to the region that includes the North Slope, an area slightly larger than Minnesota, where most of Alaska’s oil is produced. The byproducts of oil production can cause serious nervous system disorders, and the North Slope and its environs, home to Alaska Natives and itinerant oil workers, has the highest prevalence of birth defects in the state–11 percent–compared with 6 percent statewide and 3 percent nationwide.

Palin, however, has not addressed these concerns. Her administration irked environmentalists in February 2008, when it opposed legislation that would have given parents at least 48 hours’ notice before schools were to be sprayed with pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Currently, parents get 24 hours, which the bill’s proponents say is not sufficient for parents who want to arrange to keep kids out of school for a few days after the chemicals are applied. Palin’s administration argued that the bill was too restrictive and would force schools to notify parents before cleaning toilets with disinfectant–which, supporters say, is not true. In the same month, members of Palin’s administration testified against language in legislation that would have banned polybrominated diphenyl ethers–a flame retardant that, studies show, harms the developing brain.

Then, in the summer of 2007, Palin allowed oil companies to move forward with a toxic-dumping plan in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, the only coastal fishery in the nation where toxic dumping is permitted. The Bush administration initially OK’d the companies’ request to increase toxic releases, but the permits could not be issued without Alaska’s certification that the discharges met the state’s water-quality standards, says Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, an organization founded to protect the area’s watershed. Palin complied. “Palin’s Department of Environmental Conservation issued that certification [based on] the long-discounted notion that ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’–turning the federal Clean Water Act on its head and actually increasing toxic pollution,” Shavelson says.

Palin next took on the Clean Water Initiative, also known as Proposition 4, which appeared on the Alaska ballot on August 26. The measure would have limited the runoff of toxic metals–known to cause developmental and birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–from all mining operations, but it was aimed at stopping the proposed Pebble Mine, a huge mining proposal that was controversial for its potential impact on Bristol Bay, the world’s largest commercial wild salmon fishery (for which Palin’s oldest daughter was named). The project had been in the works for years, and, when she ran for governor in 2006, Palin told the Alaska Journal of Commerce that, if the mine was green-lighted, “there will be remediation from now to eternity.” Once in office, though, environmental concerns took a backseat. In a TV interview six days before the vote, Palin said, “Let me take my governor’s hat off for just a minute, and tell you personally, Prop 4–I vote no on that.” Alaska’s mining industry parlayed Palin’s face and words into an advertising blitz–and came from behind to defeat it.

Palin’s latest anti-environmental effort also came in August, when she attempted to block California’s plan to curb its air pollution. The Golden State is trying to reduce its toxic emissions with a port fee that would pay for pollution-reduction projects around the state. Arguing that it would hurt Alaska’s economy, Palin asked California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto the proposed legislation.

Finally, Palin was pushed by environmental activists and Alaska Natives to pressure the military in its cleanup of one of the most contaminated sites in Alaska–but the state didn’t act. This was on the old Northeast Cape Air Force base on remote St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea–one of the state’s closest spots to Russia. When the military closed its operations in the 1970s, it left thousands of barrels of toxic waste, containing solvents, fuels, heavy metals, pesticides, and PCBs, a group of toxic organic chemicals that have persisted in the environment. For the past few years, the Army Corps of Engineers has been slowly cleaning up parts of the site and claims it will leave it safe. (One federally funded study still in progress by the state’s premier watchdog on chemical pollutants, Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT), tested the local water and got a reading that was more than one thousand times the level that the EPA considers safe. “If the Corps of Engineers want to fill up their canteens in there, they are welcome to it,” says Kathrine Springman, the toxicologist who did that study. “Actually, I wouldn’t want them to drink it … anymore than I would ask them to drink Drano.”)

But critics say the Army is taking too long, and that its plan will leave too many untreated chemicals, PCBs in particular, at the site. According to Pamela Miller, ACAT’s executive director, Palin should have used her powers as governor to forge a better cleanup plan. “Certainly this was also a pattern in the Murkowski administration, but, under Palin, it’s gotten worse,” she said. “Her administration has done nothing to work with the military to avoid possible contamination.” Scientists have also opposed the Army’s plan, saying it will leave the area dangerous.

Supporters note that Palin did boost school spending for children with the most severe disabilities, but, in general, the Alaskan government under Palin has done nothing to protect those children and future generations from the toxic stew that the state has become. “She doesn’t have a good understanding of the science,” says Ruth Etzel, who until recently was research director at the Alaska Native Medical Program in Anchorage. “What she tends to do is talk about personal responsibility as the key to good health.”

Andrea Doll, a Democratic state representative from Juneau, says she tried to get Palin interested in her bill on flame retardants early on: “I told her about the bill. She totally was not interested in any way, shape, or form. It was that look on her face–that ‘don’t even go there’ look.

Sarah Palin’s Alaskan Wasteland: A Look At Governor Palin’s Environmental Record

Canadian Mining Firms Downplay Report They Gave Palin Gifts, but Flew Todd Palin on Their Corporate Planes to Mine Sites

The Washington Post newspaper reported this week that Sarah Palin had accepted $25,367 in gifts, including from companies with Alaska mining interests.

The Washington Post newspaper reported this week that Sarah Palin had accepted $25,367 in gifts, including from companies with Alaska mining interests.

Journalist Suzanne Fournier of Canwest News Service reports on alleged gifts given to Alaska Governor Sarah Palin by Canadian mining companies in an article published by on September 30, 2008.  One of the interesting points mentioned were the air flights taken by Todd Palin, most of which were paid for by the mining firms, up for Todd to view the mining sites, NOT the Alaskan governor herself.  After Todd Palin’s trips with company executives, Governor Sarah Palin came out against Prop. 4, the ballot initiative intended to reduce toxic runoff from the copper and gold mines into the ecologically fragile waters of Bristol Bay.  Gov. Palin’s opposition to the safety measure was widely believed to have influenced voters into defeating the ballot proposal in favor of the mining concerns.

Several Vancouver-based mining companies are downplaying a report they had given gifts to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband.

The Washington Post newspaper reported this week that Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate who pushed through her state’s ethics reform bill aimed at corrupt “old-boy” politics, had accepted $25,367 in gifts, including from companies with Alaska mining interests.

“I read the Washington Post stories on Gov. Palin and we did check into our role and determined that there was no money contributed to her campaign at any level, nor have we provided gifts to the governor,” said Sean Magee, the vice-president of public affairs at Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.

“We were quite frankly flummoxed by any reference of us making donations to her,” said Magee. “We’re a Canadian company and there are strict rules in the U.S. about political contributions.”

Northern Dynasty owns the Pebble Mine copper and gold deposit in southwestern Alaska in a 50-50 share with the Anglo-American consortium and a separate corporate entity has been created in Alaska to develop the Pebble site.

“We did, however, purchase a table at the governor’s inaugural celebration, because it was a state celebration.”

A spokesman for Vancouver-based NovaGold Resources Inc. said that its contribution was limited to allowing Todd Palin to fly in to the Donlin Creek gold minesite with government officials. The Alaska mine is under development with Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp.

“The only way you get in to the mine is by flying,” said Greg Johnson, the NovaGold spokesman.

“I gather Todd Palin has a strong interest in rural and Native American employment and development,” said Johnson, who said that Palin “has also paid for some trips out of his own pocket.”

Johnson said Palin “is part Native American I know,” but said Palin’s only role “was as the governor’s husband.” Johnson added that “native politics, business and community interests are all intermingled in Alaska.”

Teck Cominco spokesman Doug Horswill, whose Vancouver-based company is developing the Red Dog mine, said that his company’s contribution was also limited to free flights for Todd Palin.

“I don’t know in exactly what capacity Gov. Palin’s husband Todd was acting, but we took him along on a flight to the mine, which we do when we have empty seats on a plane,” said Horswill.

Todd Palin, whose mother is a quarter Yup’ik, is a union member who worked in the North Slope oil fields of Alaska for 18 years and also works as a commercial salmon fisherman at Bristol Bay, close to the site of the proposed Pebble mine.

The Washington Post newspaper is reporting mining interests contributed heavily to Palin since she became governor three years ago and among those said to have provided benefits are three Vancouver-based companies.

It’s alleged that Palin personally accepted gifts totalling $25,367 from mining interests, including a $2,200 ivory puffin mask from Matthew Nicolai, president of an American native-owned for-profit corporation called Calista that owns land on which mining companies want to do business.

Mining and environmental interests together spent $10 million fighting a ballot initiative which sought to tighten up discharge by mines into Alaskan waters, primarily by the future Pebble mine into Bristol Bay. 

After Gov. Palin said she was going to “take my governor’s hat off” and come out against the ballot measure, it was defeated at the ballot box. Palin’s pitch on behalf of mining interests was heavily used in publicity ads.

The American Fly Fishing Trade Association and industry leaders took a stand against the proposed Pebble Mine.

The American Fly Fishing Trade Association and industry leaders took a stand against the proposed Pebble Mine with Prop. 4

Canadian Mining Firms Downplay Report They Gave Palin Gifts

Palin’s Stand on Mining Initiative Leaves Many Feeling Burned

Alaskan school children protesting the creation of the proposed Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay Alaska

Alaskan school children protesting the creation of the proposed Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay Alaska

Once again, it would seem that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin believes the laws of her state do not apply to her conduct.  Government officials are prohibited from advocating on state ballot measures with state resources.  Previous Alaska governors have refrained from interjecting their ‘personal’ opinions into state initiatives, allowing the voters to decide.  

In a highly controversial ballot initiative pitting the fishing industry against the large-scale copper and gold mining corporations, Alaska’s Ballot Measure 4 (Prop. 4), went down to defeat shortly after Gov. Palin publically supported the mining industry in opposition to the measure.  The ballot measure would have imposed two water quality standards on any new large-scale mines in Alaska. Had it passed, it would have restricted large, new mines from releasing toxic pollutants into water that would adversely affect the health of humans and salmon. 

After months of intense fighting between mining companies on one side and environmentalists lining up with the fishing industry on the other side, over $10 million was spent in an effort to inform voters.  On August 20, 2008, Gov. Palin came out in support of the pro-mining coalition, who immediately ran full-page ads stating her opposition to the measure.  The election, held on August 26, saw Prop. 4 go down to defeat with 57% of the voters rejecting the safety concerns of commercial fishermen and environmental groups.

Potential Mining Footprint on Bristol Bay’s Wild Salmon and Trout Waters

Potential Mining Footprint on Bristol Bay’s Wild Salmon and Trout Waters

Writing for the Washington Post in an article published September 28, 2008, staff writer Alec MacGillis explores how the governor’s influence swayed the initiative in favor of big mining interests, at the possible determent to the livelihood of thousands of Alaskan within the fishing industry.

For months, the confrontation mounted, a face-off that arguably held in the balance the fates of two of Alaska’s biggest industries. On one side were companies hoping to open Pebble Mine at a huge gold and copper reserve adjacent to one of the world’s largest salmon runs, Bristol Bay. On the other side were fishermen and environmentalists pushing a referendum that would make it harder for the mine to open.

The two sides spent more than $10 million — unprecedented for such efforts in Alaska — and throughout it all, the state’s highly popular first-term governor, Sarah Palin, held back. Alaska law forbids state officials from using state resources to advocate on ballot initiatives.

Then, six days before the Aug. 26 vote, with the race looking close, Palin broke her silence. Asked about the initiative at a news conference, she invoked “personal privilege” to give an opinion. “Let me take my governor’s hat off for just a minute here and tell you, personally, Prop. 4 — I vote no on that,” she said. “I have all the confidence in the world that [the Department of Environmental Conservation] and our [Department of Natural Resources] have great, very stringent regulations and policies already in place. We’re going to make sure that mines operate only safely, soundly.”

Palin’s comments rocked the contest. Within a day, the pro-mining coalition fighting the referendum had placed full-page ads with a picture of the governor and the word “NO.” The initiative went down to defeat, with 57 percent of voters rejecting it.

Three days later, Palin was named Republican Sen. John McCain‘s running mate, throwing Alaska into a media frenzy. But the fallout has lingered from an episode that may stand as one of the most consequential in Palin’s 21-month tenure. The state ethics panel is examining whether her comments violated the law against state advocacy on ballot measures; it had already ruled that a state Web site was improperly slanted toward mining interests.

John Shively stands in front of a map of the proposed Pebble mine project. The Pebble Partnership, a group formed last summer to increase support for development of the Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska, selected Shively to serve as its chief executive officer.

John Shively stands in front of a map of the proposed Pebble mine project. The Pebble Partnership, a group formed last summer to increase support for development of the Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska, selected Shively to serve as its chief executive officer.

Opponents of the referendum say Palin’s intervention showed her willingness to speak up for what she saw as the state’s best interests, even if it upset many Alaskans. “It was very positive,” said John Shively, chief executive of Pebble Partnership, a consortium of Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty and multinational mining giant Anglo American that is planning the mine. “She’s very popular as governor, and so it certainly never hurts to have a popular governor on your side.”

The initiative’s supporters, stunned by Palin’s late intervention, say it demonstrated her bias in favor of development, even when it threatens an industry that supports thousands of Alaskans — including Palin’s husband, Todd, a part-time commercial fisherman who grew up near Bristol Bay.

For Palin to intervene as she did, with a brief, seemingly off-the-cuff statement just days before the election, also showed a lack of serious engagement on complex and important issues, initiative supporters say. Palin, they say, was simply going on the word of officials in her administration that the existing regulations sufficed, without taking into account their possible biases: Her natural resources commissioner hails from the mining industry, and mining companies directly subsidize some regulators’ salaries.

“She has this great faith that nothing will go wrong, which gave her a false sense of security, so she went off a little half-cocked” and spoke out, said Tim Bristol, Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited.

McCain campaign spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton, Palin’s former press secretary, defended the governor’s intervention. “From the moment Governor Palin took office, she made it clear she supports responsible resource development,” Stapleton said. “On the issue of the possible development of Pebble Mine — this is not about whether you are for or against development, because they haven’t even submitted a permit; this is about process and ensuring that any company that wants to come to Alaska and develop our resources is at the very least provided the opportunity to avail themselves of the state’s process.”

Most irksome to initiative proponents was Palin’s effort to cast her intervention as “personal.”

“We were just like, ‘When does she have her hat on and when does she have it off?’ ” Bristol said. Former governor Tony Knowles, a Democrat who lost to Palin in 2006, went further and said she may have violated the law against using state resources to advocate on initiatives. He said he never took such a decisive stand on a ballot initiative.

“She says, ‘I’m going to take off my governor’s hat,’ but the only reason the press was there was that they were called to a press conference by the governor,” he said. “Being governor is not a costume — you either are the governor or not.”

Shively said it is “absolute balderdash” to question Palin’s right to oppose the measure. Yet some other opponents of the referendum said they were surprised she spoke out. “I was delighted, absolutely delighted, but I don’t know if it was the right thing for her to do,” said Cynthia Toohey, who co-owns an Alaska mine and chaired the opposition coalition. “I’ve lived in the state 30 years, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a governor come out for or against an initiative like that.”

The same week that Palin voiced her views, Alaska’s Public Offices Commission ordered revisions to an informational Web site set up by the state. The site stated that the initiative’s proposed new regulations were “general and less precise” than existing law and that they might lead to limiting operations at existing mines. Initiative supporters said the Web site echoed the mining industry’s talking points.

El Chino, located near Silver City, New Mexico, is an example of open-pit copper mining

El Chino, located near Silver City, New Mexico, is an example of open-pit copper mining

Mining companies are proceeding with planning for Pebble Mine and hope to apply for permits in a year. Discovered in 1988, the site is the largest gold and copper deposit in the country. Supporters, who include many Native Alaskan leaders, say the mine would provide jobs for struggling rural Alaska and note that mining yields $200 million a year in state tax revenue.

But the mine would sit on Bristol Bay, a fishing paradise where 31 million sockeye salmon worth $108 million were caught last year. Opponents consider it too risky to construct an open-pit mine, as well as the world’s largest dam to hold mining waste, so close to the valuable fishing grounds. The defeated initiative would have addressed their concern, barring any new large metals mine from releasing chemicals that would damage salmon, a standard not included in current law.

Fishing employs more people than any other Alaska industry — 12,000 mostly seasonal jobs in Bristol Bay alone, compared with 5,500 mining jobs statewide. But the mining industry has more lobbying clout. In the referendum fight, the pro-mining coalition easily outspent its opposition.

Mining interests have courted Palin since her inauguration. Northern Dynasty contributed to her inaugural fund, and other mining companies have offered gifts and paid travel expenses for Palin’s husband to go on fact-finding trips.

Palin suggested in her campaign and early in her tenure that she would withhold judgment on Pebble Mine. In a campaign questionnaire, she said that “as part of a Bristol Bay fishing family myself, I would not support any resource development that would endanger the most sensitive and productive fishery in the world.” In a September 2007 interview with the Anchorage Daily News, she repeated that “Pebble Mine will not be permitted on our watch” if it hurts the salmon grounds, but she added that “we can’t go in there with a preconceived notion that Pebble Mine should or shouldn’t be permitted.”

Bear taking a swim in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Bear taking a swim in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Environmentalists saw a bad omen when Palin’s administration urged legislators not to toughen a regulation that the previous governor, Frank Murkowski (R), had loosened to allow some levels of toxicity in streams when salmon are not present. Political strategist Danny Consenstein, a leader of the pro-initiative team, said he suspected that Palin eventually came out against the initiative to maintain her Republican standing in a state where the party has long supported the use of natural resources.

“This is kind of a litmus test,” he said. “If you’re against the mining industry, you’re anti-Alaskan. She’s a Republican governor, and she’s got to show she’s pro-development.”

A week before the vote, Palin spoke with initiative opponent Mead Treadwell, the chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. He sensed that the governor was seeing things his way. “Palin said, ‘I can’t take a position, but if anyone asks me what I think, I’d say that I don’t like it,’ ” Treadwell recalled. “And about an hour later, someone asked her.”

She stated her opposition without warning Rick Halford, a conservative Republican and former state senator. A main initiative supporter, he had worked hard for Palin’s election. The two had talked during the summer about Pebble, and “she was cautious and trying to figure it out at that point,” he said.

Art Hackney, a political consultant and director of Alaskans for Clean Water, speculated that Palin may have been irked by complaints about the biased language on the state Web site. “It was her way of waving her wand, as she is wont to do,” he said, “. . . and poof, undercut this effort with one fell swoop.”

Palin’s Stand on Mining Initiative Leaves Many Feeling Burned

Aerial view of beautiful Bristol Bay, Alaska

Aerial view of beautiful Bristol Bay, Alaska