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Alaska election outcome will aid mining, including large Pebble copper, gold project

Anchorage, Alaska — Alaska voters by a wide margin turned down a ballot proposition in the November 6 state election that would have blocked major new mining projects and hobbled producing mines when they renewed operating permits.

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Ballot Measure 1 -- known as the "save our salmon" initiative -- failed by a nearly 2-1 margin, with 64% of Alaskans rejecting it.

In another development, Alaskans also elected former state senator Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, as governor, turning down a bid by former US Senator Mark Begich, the Democrat.

Dunleavy has been vocal about his support for the mining industry and has said he is open to discussions on development of the proposed large Pebble copper, gold and molybdenum project, which Begich has opposed.

Begich also endorsed the salmon initiative, which prompted influential rural Alaska Native groups that have an economic stake in mines on lands they own to endorse Dunleavy.

Fishing and tribal organizations had organized the ballot proposition, with financial backing by conservation groups and out-of-state foundations supported by tech billionaires.

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Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals owns Pebble, a large copper, gold and molybdenum deposit located southwest of Anchorage. About $800 million has been invested to date in exploration, preliminary engineering, and environmental permit work, and the project is in the middle of a federal Environmental Impact Statement process led by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

But Pebble is located in a sensitive area of wetlands connected to streams and rivers that support major salmon fisheries. Because of that, fisheries, groups, and tribes in the Bristol Bay area of southwestern Alaska have fiercely opposed the Pebble project.

The draft EIS for Pebble is expected to be complete next spring, Army Corps officials said. But the state's mining permit process is rigorous and Northern Dynasty has yet to file for its state permits.

The success of the state permitting was problematic with a governor hostile to the project, but Dunleavy's election now promises a more open, even-handed approach.

Northern Dynasty is looking for a partner in Pebble, and a more-friendly state administration will aid that search. Two previous partners, Rio Tinto and Anglo American, pulled out mainly because of the political opposition.

-- Tim Bradner, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Valarie Jackson, newsdesk@spglobal.com