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Obama and the Mining Cartel


A few days ago, Fairbanks Mayor Jim Whitaker co-authored an Anchorage Daily News piece in favor of the mining industry’s $6 million to $8 million war to put down ballot measure Proposition 4. Then he was invited to speak at the Democratic National convention. It is no coincidence that Obama invited Whitaker to the Democratic National Convention in Denver next week.

More than Whitaker’s Republican credential is at play. Obama has made friendship with Big Mining part of his Western state strategy. There’s gold in them there hills! Political gold for Obama!

As every reader of the Alaska Dispatch knows, Prop. 4 targets the Pebble Mine and its monstrous proposal to build earthquake-proof dams bigger than Hoover or Grand Coulee from mine tailings to hold back toxic lakes that could poison the Bristol Bay fishery. Prop. 4, by its language, would ban large metal mines from discharging harmful amounts of toxic chemicals into salmon streams or drinking water supplies. Prop. 4, by its language, would ban large metal mines from discharging harmful amounts of toxic chemicals into salmon streams or drinking water supplies. (Note: A description by ADN’s Bluemink is a must read- )

This insane project is opposed by Alaska environmentalists, bringing as it does to the Great Land, Alaska’s own version of what they call in West Virginia, “mountaintop removal.” But the mining industry, apparently flush with cash, looks beyond this travesty. It sees Prop. 4 as a nefarious plot to restrict mining everywhere in the state, and it now is flooding the airwaves and print media with a torrent of red herrings, from an attack on the rich boys who use the area as a playground with their own secret, six-figure slush fund, to the measure’s unknown fate on future jobs and future mining projects.

State and federal candidates are mostly silent. Both NANA Corporation and Willie Hensley, father of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, are adamant that the initiative could devalue claims settlement land and Red Dog’s expansion. Subsistence and commercial fishing are pawns.

Mayor Whitaker was invited to speak at the Obama-orchestrated Democratic convention as part of Obama’s strategy to slide Alaska into his electoral pocket, a winning national strategy, this after Ann Hayes’s IBEW-funded poll that showed the presidential race to be a close one. But contributions from friends of mining and the Native corporations to aid his national campaign could be a secondary benefit, win or lose in Alaska.

More than a Republican-turned-Obama supporter, Obama has recruited a spokesperson for the mining industry’s effort to crush the initiative, it with a mere two year shelf-life, against a strip mine and a toxic threat to a world-class fishery.

Where does Obama really stand on mining and its costly aftermath? Research (apparently not accomplished by Seattle-based Timothy Egan in Thursday’s NYT op-ed on Obama and his strategy to woo Western voters) shows that Obama curried favor with miners in both Nevada and Idaho during primary season by opposing statutory amendments proposed to a 1872 giveaway tax law (long termed “corporate welfare” by both Ralph Nader and the Cato Institute). The federal government gets zilch from mining on its land, not even enough to cover clean up costs.

The General Mining Law of 1872, wrote Ralph Nader, “is a relic of efforts to settle the West allows mining companies to claim federal lands for $5 an acre or less and then take gold, silver, lead or other hard-rock minerals with no royalty payments to the public treasury. Thanks to the anachronistic 1872 Mining Act, mining companies, including foreign companies, extract billions of dollars worth of minerals a year from federal lands, royalty free. Change is regularly blocked by Western lawmakers.”

Now Obama has joined the club long peopled by the likes of Don Young. In late 2007, according to CBS, A House-passed bill would have imposed a royalty of 4 percent of gross revenue on existing hard-rock mining operations and 8 percent of gross revenue on new mining operations. The reform bill would have put new environmental controls on hard-rock mining, set up a cleanup fund for abandoned mines and permanently ban cheap sales of public lands for mining, according to CBS.

CBS reported: “Obama said the legislation, favored by environmentalists, ‘places a significant burden on the mining industry and could have a significant impact on jobs.’ He also opposes the proposed fees.” (Read more about this)

Just as he has shifted his position on offshore drilling, he has telegraphed his willingness to be negotiable on mining. He appears to assume that environmentalists will forgive and forget, both in Alaska and nationally, if his chosen symbol of Alaskan Republican support at the Denver convention is also a shill for an Alaskan environmental disaster waiting to happen. After all, the “Vote No to Ballot Initiative 4” is backed with mining dollars for votes far in excess of mining contributions to the presidential race of either candidate. (See

STEVE CONN is a retired professor of justice at the University of Alaska, and former director of Alaska Public Interest Research Group. He lived in Alaska from 1972 to 2007 and is now based in Point Roberts, Wash. He recently helped collect more than 5,900 signatures from Alaskan voters to put Ralph Nader on the 2008 Alaska Presidential ballot. He can be reached at:


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