By PAULA DOBBYN
Anchorage Daily News
April 13, 2006
Stevens, who has a long history of supporting development projects in Alaska, said he was offended by the ironic moniker, given him by the Senate Majority Project, a group that targets Senate Republicans.
But the state's senior senator, a Republican, said he will continue to oppose the giant Pebble gold and copper project until convinced it will not harm the area's rich salmon runs.
"If that makes me a turncoat from being an extreme developer, so be it," Stevens told reporters in Anchorage.
The Pebble deposit lies in the headwaters of two rivers that feed Bristol Bay, one of the world's biggest producers of wild salmon. A Canadian company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, is spending millions of dollars on scientific studies in hopes of turning Pebble into North America's largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine.
The company has hired numerous lobbyists to promote the idea that Pebble could be an economic engine, particularly for Southwest Alaska, hard hit by a downturn in its fishing industry.
But Stevens seems irritated with Northern Dynasty's "overwhelming" lobbying efforts.
"They're hiring people from all over the place to criticize me, to fly back to Washington to talk to everybody about my opposition to this mine," he said.
The lobbyists have met with Stevens too.
"They just laid it on pretty hard. You know, 'You got to do this because we're going to get jobs, et cetera, et cetera.' I said, 'What about the fish?' "
Northern Dynasty executives did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday afternoon and evening.
Earlier this year, chief operating officer Bruce Jenkins said Stevens is entitled to his opinion and that the company is not asking Alaskans now to support what currently is only a mining prospect. Rather, it would like residents to take a wait-and-see approach and allow the regulatory process to take its course.
Stevens' stance on Pebble has surprised many. An ardent champion of developing Alaska, Stevens threatened last fall to resign if senators stripped money away from two huge Alaska bridge projects to give to other states.
But Pebble is different, the senator said. If it was an oil and gas project, he would consider supporting it, but a huge open-pit mine poses too much threat to fish. He cited tailings, or waste rock, as well as mining roads.
Stevens' remarks about Pebble have caused some friction with his usual allies, he said.
"My old friends in the mining industry . . . are ready to put a red-hot poker to my throat," he said.
"I'm not going to change and I hope people will listen to us. That resource is an enormous resource not just for the Native people but for the Bristol Bay run and it ought not be tampered with by a gold mine," Stevens said.
Northern Dynasty has not yet determined if Pebble makes financial sense to develop. But recent results from drilling indicated it was an even more gigantic prospect than previously thought, according to the company.
Stevens expressed doubts about Pebble's chances of ever becoming a mine. He said mining industry representatives have told him they considered developing Pebble in the past but decided the cost of complying with environmental regulations made a potential mine too expensive. He declined to name them.
Prior to Northern Dynasty's acquisition of the Pebble claim block, a major mining company called Cominco Inc., now Teck Cominco, explored the region and spent years figuring out whether to build a mine.
Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said when Cominco considered it a decade ago, metal prices were much lower than today and the extent of the deposit was not as well known, so it's not surprising that they walked away from the project.
"This is an extremely different project than when Cominco had it."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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