Chuitna Coal Hearing in Kenai Draws a Crowd (updated*)
The “Magic Bus” pulled out of the parking lot in midtown Anchorage packed to the gunwales. People came out on a weekday evening, with the threat of an impending blizzard in Turnagain Pass, knowing they wouldn’t be home until well after midnight, to give public testimony on an issue that will impact every Alaskan, and that most have never heard of. Despite the fact that the specific project addressed by this petition is across Cook Inlet, and local residents of the area only amount to a couple hundred, the ramifications are fairly staggering.
Never before has there been a resource development project that would literally bulldoze its way right through a healthy productive salmon stream. The Chuitna Coal project is set to do just that, wiping out eleven miles of pristine salmon habitat to a depth of 350 feet in its first phase of operation. There is no law against doing this, and if Pac-Rim gets its way with this one, others will surely follow, and others after that. Precedent can be a dangerous thing.
No worries, says Pac-Rim. After eight years of mining, they’re going to put it all back together. They’ll just save the topsoil, and put it back when they’re done. It’ll be just as good as it was before, if not better. What they don’t say is that impacts to the watershed from the mining activities not only change the physical surroundings, but the chemical, hydrologic, microbiological and geological processes that make a salmon stream possible in the first place. It’s not about digging a stream channel, it’s about an ecosystem.
Restoration is what has to happen in order for the project to proceed in these designated areas that buttress the Chuit River and Middle Creek. Unless they can be sure of that reclamation is possible, the DNR can designate a site as “unsuitable” for surface coal mining. This designation would mean a buffer of 150 feet on either side of the Chuit River, and 100 feet on either side of its tributaries. Many would argue that this measure still does not go far enough to protect the watershed, but it’s better than nothing.
Chuitna Citizens Coalition, and Cook Inletkeeper have submitted a petition to the DNR which, if successful would result in an “unsuitable” for coal strip mining designation for the land immediately surrounding the salmon-filled Chuit River and its tributaries. It sounds like a no-brainer, but we’ve learned before that sometimes that doesn’t mean much.
As it stands now, Pac-Rim Coal, in only the first phase of a massive project that will ultimately if successful affect more than 20,000 acres of wetlands, salmon streams, coastal area, and woodlands. The populated areas which stand at the center of the coal bullseye are the villages of Beluga and Tyonek, a mere 45 miles from downtown Anchorage. The current plan would not only dig up the stream, but would see more than 7 million gallons of mine waste per day pumped into the 30-foot wide Chuit River, which is home to all five species of Alaska salmon.
- ~The Magic Bus takes a pit stop on the three hour drive to Kenai
Only one public hearing was planned to address the petition, and it was not lost on those of us who took an entire day to make this pilgrimage, that it had been planned on a weeknight, and a three hour drive from Anchorage. There were reportedly eight people from the Native village of Tyonek who had planned to testify, but were unable to fly in due to inclement weather. The people of Tyonek arguably have the most to lose – commercial fishing, subsistence food, and a culture and way of life they have enjoyed in that very place for thousands of years. Another hearing in Tyonek is being discussed, and counsel for the organizations who initiated the petition stated that if it could be done in a timely manner – in the next couple weeks – they would not object to the delay.
Those planning to testify, or just to listen, filed in to the Challenger Learning Center and filled the room. To turn out 150 people or more in this venue, at this time, was encouraging for those who came to speak their mind and support the Unsuitable Lands designation.
Running the meeting were Russell Kirkham, the Project Manager for the Alaska Coal Regulatory Program, and Rick Fredrickson, Mine Chief for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Both men sat behind a table at the front of the room, with a projected image of the area in question on a screen behind them, a podium with a microphone in front of them for those who had come to testify.
After a brief introduction in which he told us that “the purpose of the petition is to request to designate water bodies within the watershed as unsuitable for surface coal mining,” Kirkham brought out the list of names of those who had signed up to testify. I started keeping count on a piece of scrap paper, how many were testifying yes, to designate the land unsuitable, and how many were testifying no. It became clear after not too long a time that this type of tally was not necessary. People showed up for fish, not coal, and they came from Kenai, Soldotna, Anchorage, Nikiski, Homer, Kasilof, Wasilla, Palmer, Dillingham, Seward, Beluga, Sterling, Anchor Point, Chickaloon and Fairbanks to do it.
One after another they came: “My grandfather was a coal miner in Southern Missouri. Acidification killed all the lakes.” “Eventually the coal will be gone, and the fish will be gone. We need fish more than we need coal.” “Governor Parnell said he won’t trade one resource for another. We need to hold him accountable for that.”
Enthusiastic applause followed every testimonial, despite Kirkham’s early request to hold the applause to the end. Emotions ran the gamut – some were outraged that we even needed to have the discussion because it seemed to them so obvious that mining in these areas is wrong. Others had an air of almost desperation. Some were all facts and figures and science. An elderly resident of Beluga, voice cracking, almost broke down in tears talking about how her grandchildren and great grandchildren might have no river to fish. And there was a sentiment of anger, that the DNR and the state government were not listening to the people, but to the special interests of large corporations who do not have Alaskans’ best interest at heart.
A total of 56 people had the opportunity to speak their piece, and they all came down on the side of the unsuitable designation, except one. “I know what it’s like to be the unpopular one in the room,” said Dan Graham, the Project Director for the Chuitna Coal project. He turned increasingly red as he gave his statement with all eyes upon him, and only a few feet away from a row of residents of Beluga, which will be directly affected by the mine. He tried to assure the room that if the project couldn’t be done with the guarantee that the environment could be restored, then it wouldn’t happen. Some of the audience clapped at the statement, and were met with a stern, “Let the man talk” from Frederickson. “Not on my watch,” the project manager continued. Ultimately, the public was having none of it. When he finished, one person clapped tentatively. The rest of the room remained stone silent, boring holes in the back of his head as he returned to his seat. Later several of those testifying rebuked him directly in their comments.
Three and a half hours later, all those who wished to speak had spoken. Ed Sandberg from Sterling, the last person to testify, asked Kirkham and Frederickson, “I’d like to know what you’re going to take back to DNR?” “We’ll take the message back, for sure,” said Frederickson, which didn’t set anyone’s mind at ease.
The voices of Alaskans were heard – fishermen, fisherwomen, educators, scientists, sportsmen, conservationists, residents of the affected area, and those who realize that the “affected area” is all of us. What will happen now is anyone’s guess. The Unsuitable Lands designation rests in the hands of the Department of Natural Resources under new Commissioner Dan Sullivan.
Here is some of what was said by those he is supposed to represent:
Fish have been there for a long time, and have been providing for people. My vote is for the fish. If you wanted to find a place not to put a coal mine, I say go there. We have five species of salmon. It’s been forever in the past, and it could be forever in the future. They won’t be here 50 years from now when we have a stinkin’ hole in the ground.
I don’t know why we’re here. We’ve had this discussion on this project in many forms in many different ways. There is n’t anything that recommendes this project for the state its people or the environment.
Cathy, Science teacher in Kenai.
Once you damage an ecosystem, you can’t get it back again. Everything is part of nature’s intricate plan. Once you take the coal out, you change everything. The carbon footprint just to run the mine is going to put half a billion tons of co2 in the air every year. The coal after it’s mined will be burned. People are investing millions of dollars in these coal mines when we have other options available. We need to put money into clean energy.
If ever there was a proposed project unsuitable for this site, this is it. Everyone is entitled to clean air and water. The quality of life in Beluga and Tyonek would forever be diminished.
Pete from Homer, small charter business owner
My family relies on salmon as an important part of their diet. A strip coal mine anywhere near a salmon stream is reprehensible. This salmon stream and all salmon streams must be designated unsuitable.
Only God would be capable of reproducing 11 miles of salmon stream and all its fixings, and it might even take him some time. What would be the dollar value of the salmon in Middle Creek for the next 10,000 years?
Tom from Homer, Commercial Fisherman
I use the area of cook inlet for commercial fishing, and personal use for hunting and fishing. I think this is wrong on every level. The Chuitna is a major producer of king salmon on Cook Inlet. This is the first time that we are proposing to destroy a salmon stream in Alaska, and will set a dangerous precedent. I’d like to see this not happen.
Sonia from Homer
I was really unhappy to get drug out of my warm house tonight to talk about something that should be really obvious. Let’s not trade one resource for another.
Kevin from Homer
Wild salmon streams cannot be artificially built. It’s not like artificial snow. You just can’t make it.
How can they possibly keep a promise like replacing a salmon stream? Human stewardship is our duty. I’m damned ashamed that management is even considering this, and that’s my thought on this.
Mark, Soldotna Photo brown hat
I’ve guided and fished the Chuit for the last two decades.
King salmon only occur in a small handful of rivers in this region. To call this region “fragile” is an understatement. We cannot allow wild salmon populations to be exchanged for irresponsible resource development.
Our federal, state and local agencies with huge budgets and hundreds of employees have the duty and responsibility to guard alaska’s treasures are doing their job poorly. If we fail in our duty, this will spell the end to our way of life and the demise of our beautiful state of AK. Our pristine habitats are being destroyed in pursuit of coal.
I’m interested in this issue because I’m a sports fisherwoman. I have flown to Beluga and fished in this watershed. Alaska’s economy is a good reason to support the petition and to actually stop mining in salmon habitat. Commercial fishing for salmin in Cook Inlet had an economic impact of 98 million and employed 1000 people. Sport fishing brought in 730 million and created 8000 jobs. This does not include fed state and local taxes generated from the fishery. This revenue stream can go on indefinitely, but it’s only if we take care of this resource. If you do risk/benefit analysis on this proposal, it doesn’t pencil out. We are going to export our coal to China and get it sent back as mercury in our fish.
It was really an effort to come here. I moved to Alaska just about a year ago and was introduced to Alaska’s wild salmon. The proposal seems outrageous to consider. The precedent would lead to unthinkable destruction later on. We need to put Alaska first.
In Dillingham we’re working on trying to stop Pebble Mine. Our watersheds are beautiful, our people are beautiful and we are worthy of love and respect. I don’t see any help coming through the DNR. We can only be as healthy as our land. Alaska is the largest fishery on earth. It is us. We are from the salmon. Our elders don’t deserve the fear the mining companies put in our heart. I would like to see the state of Alaska stand with us on this issue.
Middle creek produces 20% of the silver salmon of the entire Chuit watershed. I prefer my salmon wild.
I have a Masters Degree in public health. Salmon is a critical part of many of our communities.
I am here representing Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA) as a staff member. Teens in our program this year have created a campaign to celebrate and protect wild Alaska salmon. Youth from Togiak, Yakutat, Emmonak, Kotlik, Bethel, Fairbanks, and Palmer have written a resolution. Signed by 50 teens from 13 other communities. The wild seafood industry employs the highest number of Alaska workers. Alaska is the last stronghold of wild salmon in the world. We ask our leaders to preserve and protect the habitat and integrity of Alaska salmon against irreversible harm.
Worked on the Exxon Valdez cleanup. I don’t want to see Alaska’s renewable sustainable resources destroyed by industrial greed. I also don’t want to eat farmed fish. If this destruction of salmon habitat is not stopped here and now there will be no more safe to eat salmon in Alaska. It’s like those ‘Do not Trash Alaska’ road sides. This is one of the worst examples of vandalism, trashing that I can think of.
Nils from the Eyak Preservation Council in Cordova dedicated to preserving wild salmon habitat and way of life.
Hearings like these are needed and there should be more in more populated and easy to access places. I can only reiterate what everyone seems to be saying. If this mine is allowed to continue, the DNR will essentially be communicating that profit from destroying the environment is more importand that profit derived from beautiful sustainable natural resource.
I built a house over there I’ve been over there for 30 plus years, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this coal mine should not go forward. I’m not really a speaker so you’ll have to bear with me. The salmon is the key but there are related items. They’re going to pump 7 million gallons per day into the inlet. The Chuit river is approximately 30 feet across. I can wade across it. When they got ready to flush the grand canyon, they used less than 7 million gallons, but they’re going to put that through the Chuit every single day. I first thought we could coexist over there, but after attending a bunch of meetings I’ve changed my mind.
Restoration of the Chuit watershed is physically impossible. The science is clear. Alaskans have spoken.
Linda, Anchor Point
It’s inconceivable irresponsible and unintelligent to even consider destroying an area like this and to think you can put it back together again. Our water systems have become polluted and our rivers haven’t produced what they have in the past. I don’t think we are managing our resources the way we should. This scares a lot of people.
United Fisherman of Alaska, Board of Directors.
Represents 38 commercial fishing organizations and 12,000 families.
Resolution in opposition to the mine as the first designated elimination of salmon habitat
Also from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, representing 500 commercial fishing families in the Cook Inlet area. We rely on five species of salmon and healthy habitat.
These proposed buffers will be inadequate to preserve the salmon. We strongly oppose the mine.
Dennis Gann, Cook Inletkeeper Anchorage
At least 8 members of the village of Tyonek were coming to testify, but could not make it due to bad weather. I was asked to read a letter. This coal mine would destroy valuable fish, wildlife and lands. Tyonek relies heavily on subsistence, personal use and commercial fishing. 98% of the population opposes it for development. Need to protect a traditional way of life. In addition to salmon, the projected dock wil adversely affect the already endangered beluga whale and steller sea lion.
This mine would set a really bad precedent.
Judy Heilman, Beluga
Seeing all of you here makes me cry. Thank you. When we started this fight, we thought we were alone. We have to keep fighting until we have laws preventing mining through our salmon streams. If this is permitted it won’t be just in our back yard, it will be in every back yard in the state. We have to change our ways. We can’t go forward with what we are doing today.
Larry Heilman, Beluga
Representing Tyonek fish and game advisory committee.
Pointed at map and explained how ”One project is going to destroy the whole ecosystem.”
VP Castle Mountain coalition
To deny this petition would be a grave mistake. Read a passage from a book “Fish – The Future of the Last Great Food”
He raised the issue of coal burning causing ocean acidification. People say “Something must have happened in the ocean” when salmon runs fail to appear. It’s up to us to force these guys to make the right decision.
Alaska needs economic diversity. I grew up in the southwest United States, in former mining area. Do you know what’s there now? Ghost towns.
I’m invested in teaching stewardship. It’s important to protect renewable resources, and to nurture the Chuit lands and habitats. Our children deserve the legacy of wild lands and fish. Chief Seattle said, “The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”
Legal Counsel for Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Cook Inletkeeper
The Chuit is one of the last rivers in the area with a significant number of king salmon returns. It supports 2 communities – Beluga and Tyonek. The area is too important to sacrifice. We encourage DNR to hold a hearing in Tyonek. If the meeting could be held in the next couple weeks, we would agree to postpone deadlines for a decision.
Executive Director, Cook Inletkeeper
All Alaskans have a fundamental constitutional right to clean water and healthy salmon, and with those rights comes the obligation to manage and protect them for current and future generations. Coal strip mining does not protect those resources. John Shively, who previously served as the DNR Commissioner and now represents the corporations looking to develop the Pebble Mine, has made the point several times that “Fishermen kill more fish than mines do.” And of course, all of us who fish, kill fish. But that’s not the point.; the point is that in the case of the Chuitna project, we’re not only killing wild Alaska salmon, but we’re also killing their fish habitat. We’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg. This is a historic precedent and if DNR disallows this petition, it would be the first time in state history a large strip mine would be permitted to mine completely through a salmon stream. If it happens here in Cook Inlet - in Anchorage’s back yard, the population center of our state - it can happen anywhere. It’s clear that all eyes are on DNR to see if you will allow mining through an Alaskan salmon stream. This hearing has to be about science and facts.
Dan, Kenai Peninsula, Educator
(Brought out his mandolin, and played a great tongue-in-cheek song about coal mining and salmon)
Let’s make a mine and kill all the fish
We don’t care, we’re getting rich
You can take my line, you can take my pole
Cause there ain’t no salmon, just a great big hole
Renewable Resources Coalition
This is only the beginning and exactly what happened in the lower 48. There are 350 salmon streams in the PNW that are no longer salmon streams. That means 350 genetically unique strains of wild salmon that are no longer with us. You don’t have to look far to see what’s going to happen in Alaska. We can’t let it happen. Salmon is worth much more as an intact resource than a memory.
Project Manager for proposed chitna coal project, and the only voice in support of the project
Public review will properly occur at a future date. At that time the details of our projects will be discussed and some of the myths will be dispelled. When that time comes we agree with everyone in this room that proposed operations need a measure of increased scrutiny, especially when salmon are involved. Successful mine operation and healthy fish are not mutually exclusive. We’ve been focusing on restoring fish habitats, and have provided DNR with a subset of examples for their consideration. We will reengage with groups to finalize the design, and the plan to restore the fish habitat. We are available to speak with those constituents who want to engage in constructive dialog on this issue. We want to be “environmental good citizens.”
You can’t reclaim something you destroy.
This is a bad project. (Indicating those in the room) We’re the only reason why this isn’t going on today, and why there are still fish in the Chuit River. There is no more Chuitna river if this happens. How many of us will be alive in 75 years? How many Alaskans are going to be hired for this project? I asked and they told me,“Probably none.” This is the worst possible place you could put a coal mine. If they pump it down 400 feet they’re going to drain my well and my neighbors’ wells.
This is a wetland, and I think this is the biggest concern. I have not seen an example anywhere of where any kind of a fen or bog or marsh or wetland can be dug up to hundreds of feet below the gound surface and create the premining ecology of that area. Show me an example. Where’s the beef?
Lived here for 60 years since 1951. I bought a house in Beluga. I don’t think they should have that coal min there at all… it would be terrible for our health, and it would ruin the salmon stream. I am very much opposed. I have all my grandkids and great grandkids come over there. And if it goes that way, with all the coal dust… it would be so bad.
Mat Valley coalition, Friends of Mat Su, Sierra Club and others
Coal filters our water and watersheds. For the past 100 years underground coal mines in the Mat valley have destroyed vast areas. Jonesville and Wishbone Hill areas have been tried to be reclaimed. Reclaimed Moose Creek has not recovered 100 years later. My grandfather is in the coal miners hall of fame. Coal killed him and his friends. He would not support this. Millions of dollars and a hundred years cannot restore a wild salmon population.
Clark, 45-year Alaska resident
Strongly opposed to this, Pebble, and Donlin Creek mine. Environmental, economic problems… and ethics. Shocked by scope and scale of Pebble Mine. Lived in Nondalton. Not opposed to mining, but opposed to mines on a scale like this that would destroy whole ecosystems. More will come and devastate large portions of the state. I assumed that organizations like DNR and DEC would be looking out for all the citizens of the state of Alaska. I was naïve. I think that these sorts of project are wrong. Commercial fisherman and pilots have a “rule of three.” If there are 3 things against you flying into a mountain pass or out commercial fishing then you don’t do them. We have three. When agencies are staffed with industry insiders people worry what the outcome might be. There has never been a large scale mine that HASn’t been permitted in Alaska. DNR is understaffed and it would take legislative action to remedy that. A lot of people worry like I do that the game is rigged in favor of the industries. Ultimately they are bound as corporations to generate a profit. Here is a list of salmon streams that have been destroyed in the lower 48. (Rolls long paper list on the floor) The people that make these decisions will be judged by history, and if they don’t listen to science and the people of Alaska they will be judged very harshly.
Environmental toxicologist. I have 25 years experience in site remediation. During this time I have never seen a project of this magnitude that has been successfully restored and reclaimed. To assume we can go in, dig down 350 feel, remove soil, disturb the hydrology and the microbiology of the system and then com in and restore them is naïve. There is no data that supports the magnitude and the depth of this project. It will be compromised. It will not be what it is. So if it is allowed to go forward we will see the destruction, the devastation of this stream and these wetlands. I urge you, DNR, to also adopt this designation.
Disappointed in Mayor Carey leaving so soon. Belugas will recover only if human impact is limited. It took God millions of years to create the Chuitna. What makes Pac Rim think they can restore it in a couple years. There are 180 residents in Tyonek and they will not budge an inch. I helped put mayor Carey in office, and he should have been in this meeting until everybody left, and he heard what everyone had to say.
Rob, Nikiski – photo
Coal is dirty at both ends. Outside politicians wooing our politicians with promises of economic opportunity is dirty.
EP coordination for Indian tribe
DNR commissioner – Do your job! Do your job in the best interest of Alaskans. We need you to protect our resources. You will never get rid of us – the people who are willing to fight against the destruction of our habitat and our way of life.
I am terribly concerned about the mercury that is present in coal and what happens to that mercury when it’s disturbed, and the poisoning that takes place of the stream and the fish and the people that eat that fish.
Pac-Rim stockholders and short term jobs stand to benefit. Alaska sees itself as independent pioneers and we got away with a lot for many years because there weren’t many of us. It is time for Alaska to have some rules. I would like to see us take this energy that we have and the experitise and planning and goals and money and get serious about renewables, and be pioneers with renewables.
I had a great speech. I wish I’d have been here first but everyone said what I was going to say. DNR, you’ve got to listen to what we’re telling you. I don’t eat coal, I eat salmon. Our elected officials don’t listen to us anymore. We’re tired of this stuff with outside interest groups coming up here destroying our wildlife and our habitat. If everybody in this room would call the governor and Commissioner Sullivan, that’s more people who’s going to get noticed. It’s too bad that these people have to take time out to take time to address this ridiculous matter. It’s sad it’s gone this far. I hope you go back there and tell him what’s going on here.
I have fished this land for as long as I can remember but I started reading about the Chuitna river and the Pac-Rim project, and I don’t even know why we’re here. It’s ridiculous why anyone would consider mining through a salmon stream. Once you take the coal out, there’s no filter. You can’t put it back, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. You know it and I know it. We should never trade our salmon for that crap. I’m completely opposed.
It’s unconscionable we are even considering this project. Put me on the record.