Home | Speakers

Clean Water in Alaska 2008


In August of 2008, the citizens of Alaska proposed the Alaska Clean Water Initiative. This initiative concerned Alaska's robust mining industry, that it was accelerating the deterioration of natural resources and contaminating much of the state's water supply.

Alaska is unique not only for its location and intemperate climate, but also for its governance. In order for a bill to pass, it has to be proposed by state citizens, not the state's legislative branch, as it is in the rest of the United States. Rather than people mounting dissent or support for a particular bill, they bring the bills to the legislature themselves, ensuring a strictly democratic practice.

A bill must develop interest and enthusiasm. People must sign a ballot, signifying their support for the initiative, and only then, once enough names are gathered, the bill moves to the state government. Alaska does not have difficulty with this system. Thousands of citizens, whether they were for or against a particular measure, regularly sound their voices.

On the surface the Clean Water Initiative was clearly a positive measure to protect Alaska's pristine, natural landscape; to assure the state's water supply is not further polluted and that it remains a healthy resource to the people who depend on it for survival.

But look closer, as every Alaskan did, and you'll see that the bill puts restrictions on one of Alaska's economic engines-mining. A significant amount of the working population goes to work everyday in one of the numerous mining projects taking place around the state. And while much of Alaska's land is preserved and free from industry, the mining industry leaves a deep environmental footprint, emitting destructive toxins into the air and water.

What this meant, then, is that Alaska had a divisive issue on their hands. Was it more important to preserve the state's water or its work force? Was it a question of morality, or economics? Those who leaned toward the environment suggested that it was time for the mining industry and other energy programs to invest in clean energy systems, using solar, wind, or nuclear technology, rather than oil. There was also a call for the mining industry to be diminished in general, for the state's workers to focus on jobs where the future was cleaner and economically diverse.

But those who leaned toward the state's work force expressed distress and outrage that fellow Alaskans were prepared to turn the economy inside out. Many suggested that passing the Alaska Clean Water Initiative would strain and ultimately destroy the Alaskan economy. Others petitioned for the welfare of the state's families, using education and healthcare as two reasons to keep people working--so they could afford to support their families.

By the time the Alaska Clean Water Initiative was ready to be voted on, the issue had become a source of contention and emotion. The sides were formed and the dividing line had been drawn. It was a question of who had more numbers, and which, if any, circumstances would affect the bill's outcome.

Certain circumstances did arise. Opponents said the bill misappropriated state lands. By cordoning off sections of state land, the opponents said, the bill effectively took away an Alaskan's place to work. This was illegal, they argued, because only the Alaskan Legislature can appropriate state land.

Advocates for the bill reacted by bringing the objection to the Supreme Court, who ruled that the bill did not break the law. The bill was now in the hands of the voters.