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September 28, 2021

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Voices from the Flats – Citizens Speak Out for Salmon Over Coal

~The mouth of the Chuitna River where 7 million gallons/day of mine waste would pour into Cook Inlet every day, right across from Anchorage, if the Chuitna Coal project goes through.

By Bill Sherwonit

I wish to add my voice, again, to the many and diverse Alaskans who oppose the destruction of a Cook Inlet salmon stream for the sake of a coal mine. And I urge other Alaskans to join the effort to stop the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine, by either attending a public hearing in Kenai on Jan. 19, or by sending comments to the state’s Department of Natural Resources – or both (details below).

I have written before about Alaska’s “New Coal Rush” and efforts to stop a coal exploration permit extension (which, sadly, the state ultimately approved). To briefly summarize: PacRim Coal, a Delaware company backed by Texas investors, wants to strip away some 5,000 acres of wild lands and waters, including 11 miles of Middle Creek, a salmon-spawning tributary of the Chuitna River, one of northern Cook Inlet’s significant salmon-producing streams. Located about 45 miles – or a half-hour plane ride – west of Anchorage, the targeted area right now consists mostly of lowland forests, bogs, ponds, and streams. In short, it is a productive wetland area for both fish and wildlife and, at the heart of this conflict, important salmon habitat.

Before getting into many of the reasons this coal mine is a bad idea, I will again point out that this is not some greenie gloom-and-doom stuff. A few hundred people live in the area, mostly in the villages of Beluga and Tyonek, and most of them are strongly opposed to the coal mine. As I wrote in my original commentary, though the Athabascan residents of Tyonek and the mostly non-Native residents of Beluga don’t necessarily agree on much, they’ve joined in opposition to the Chuitna coal project, while also forging alliances with environmental groups and reaching out to other Alaskan communities facing nearby coal extraction. In 2007 those residents formed the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, which also includes other landowners, commercial and sport fishermen, Fish and Game advisory committees, and conservation groups.

In contrast to that diverse grassroots opposition, there appear to be few, if any, outspoken proponents of the mine. In a story about the proposed coal mine, the Homer News reported, “Unlike the Pebble Project, it is difficult to find vocal supporters of the Chuitna strip mine. It does not show up on the PacRim Delaware website and extensive Internet research failed to turn up a single proponent in news accounts and industry websites.” There is concern, however, that some in state government support the project, despite Gov. Sean Parnell’s assurance that he would never trade one resource for another. The CCC website notes that last July, state officials presenting resource development plans to an audience in Japan “referred to the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine with the clear and obvious implication that the project has a predetermined outcome, and that production – regardless of public input, the rule of law or scientific data – will invariably commence.” The coalition’s website includes a link to the state’s presentation.

Besides expressing opposition to the mine, we Alaskans should make it clear that we won’t accept such shameful behavior by government officials.

Have I mentioned that a number of independent fishery and/or habitat scientists have reviewed PacRim’s plans for mining and future restoration and they agree it’s not possible to restore a wild salmon-spawning stream to its original productivity after mining ends? It makes intuitive sense that a 25-year coal mining project would forever change the nature of a wild place, but it’s always nice to have some scientific backing. The CCC’s website includes links to relevant reports and reviews. It also includes a long list of reasons to oppose the mine. Here are some key ones:

• If fully developed, the Chuitna coal mine as currently proposed would strip more than 32 square miles of the Chuitna watershed; the first phase alone would destroy more than 15 square miles of prime fish and wildlife habitat. The mine would also “remove” 11 miles of Middle Creek (while re-routing the creek’s waters), a salmon-producing waterway and major tributary of the Chuitna River, which the Department of Fish and Game has identified as “significant to salmon.”

• During production, the mine would discharge an estimated 7 million gallons of mine waste and runoff into the Chuitna River and ultimately Cook Inlet daily. As one mine opponent has pointed out, that’s the equivalent of two 5-gallon buckets of wastewater being flushed through the system for every man, woman and child in Alaska. EVERY DAY.

• The “removal” – that is, destruction – of Middle Creek would establish an awful precedent. Other salmon streams could more easily be targeted by mining projects (for instance the proposed Pebble mine).

• As noted above, the idea that this area could be restored to its original condition is ludicrous. In fact PacRim has not been able to provide one example of strip-mined salmon spawning and rearing habitat that has been restored to its pre-mining productivity. To the contrary, the CCC notes, “There has never been a successful coal strip mine reclamation effort in a watershed as wet, cold, and productive as the Chuitna watershed.”

• Besides the destruction of Middle Creek, the coal mine would interrupt local groundwater flow, which is essential to the overwinter survival of salmon eggs and fry.

• In short, the coal mine would permanently change (as in wreck) the Chuitna River ecosystem and diminish, if not ruin, its salmon productivity.

• The proposed mine could also generate considerable air pollution. By the state’s own estimate (included in a 1990 federal environmental impact statement) it could produce 230 tons of coal dust annually.

Have I mentioned that the state of Alaska has no law that prevents mining through salmon streams?

As an offshoot of this ongoing salmon-vs.-mining debate, there is now an effort to let the governor and Alaska’s legislators know “There oughta be a law” against any mining in our state’s salmon streams. Alaskans who support such a law are encouraged to sign a petition on the website obviouslaw.org.

And those who oppose the proposed Chuitna coal mine are encouraged to attend the one and only public hearing currently scheduled by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Wednesday Jan. 19 at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai (9711 Kenai Spur Highway), from 6 to 9 p.m.

A person might reasonably ask why only one hearing? And why Kenai?

It’s worth noting that the Alaska Center for the Environment is planning a “free, fun bus trip” to the hearing; contact Valerie at 274-3632 or valerie@akcenter.org for more details.

Those unable or unwilling to drive to Kenai can submit comments to DNR by regular mail (Chuitna River Watershed Lands Unsuitable Petition, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 550 W. Seventh Ave., Anchorage 99501) or email (russell.kirkham@alaska.gov). Or, you can go to the Chuitna Citizens Coalition site, which has a link for submitting comments. They must be submitted to DNR by 5 p.m. on Jan. 19.

Let our government officials know that Alaska shouldn’t sacrifice salmon streams for the sake of coal or any sort of mining.

Comments

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Comments
28 Responses to “Voices from the Flats – Citizens Speak Out for Salmon Over Coal”
  1. Akbohunk says:

    First time on this site. It is good to find a place that tackles contentious issues and someone is not being called an idiot/moron for their beliefs. The exchanges between Polarbear and Nyankoye are a fair example.
    My Grandfather, Father, Uncles and I all worked most of our working lives underground. My two sons work at Greens Creek. That is the sum total of my creds to talk about mining issues. My family knows how to find our way into and out of a hole in the ground.
    I am automatically suspicious of talk about stopping a particular mining effort. I have seen reasonable, well engineered, viable projects ultimately (sp) stopped by citizen involvement. I have worked all over the U.S. and have seen the best and the worst in terms of care of our beautiful land and water. Obviously, in the early days, mining companies ripped apart the countryside with no regard for what came behind them. From first hand experience I can tell you that companies now understand what the costs of doing business truly are. They build these costs in from the beginning.
    Any way, interesting conversation and I will be reading here in the future.

    • Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

      Akbohunk- Welcome to the fray. I am also always glad to meet a miner.

      It is a low key blog and very civil. One of, but by no means the only reason I too like it.

      Cheers,

  2. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    Polarbear – I’ve never worked in Alaska. In the early 90s I spent parts of 3 years in the NWT, Yukon and N. Quebec. That is the only substantial amount of work I have done in N. America. Most of my time has been spent in Africa and S. America though I call the US home.

    Stay warm and I’ll try to stay dry.

  3. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    Polarbear – Well stated and thank you for clarifying and expanding upon your views. I accept your rule of thumb but would suggest that we won’t get to pick and choose. Both opposition to bad schemes (in the British sense) and support of good ones takes a lot of work. It might be feasible as part of any effort to oppose badly conceived schemes to propose one or more alternatives that would have a similar economic impact, i.e. create as many jobs paying approximately equal wages. One of the things I notice in my superficial look at Alaska’s DNR is that the royalties for mineral extraction are substantially lower than those for fossil fuels. Addressing that disparity by raising royalties on minerals might discourage schemes like Chuitna.

    I am assuming you live in AK and therefore I am encouraged that there is one more person who is thoughtful and concerned about the long term. I very much encourage you to find like minded people and pool your resources to work to improve your economy in a responsible fashion. And I very much hope you will have success.

    As to the political aspects, I try not to lump everyone under labels but it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore that the GOP appears to be growing increasingly fixated on party fealty. I appreciate your explanation of your omission and take you at your word.

    I can’t say that I am optimistic for the short term or long term but I am unwilling to be pessimistic and unengaged. As an exploration geologist I have spent more than 2/3 of my life involved in mining projects essentially from cradle to grave and I can say with some authority that the technology and science exists to make mining much less destructive environmentally and socially. The difficulty is that such an approach is expensive and directly impacts the bottom line. I don’t know what the expected ROI for the Pebble mine is but it is easy enough to approximate its NPV which at *today’s* prices is more than half a trillion dollars. My expertise does not allow for much traction outside the realm of the technicalities. I do know that a vast amount of mining is simply never done because it is not “economically feasible”. In almost all cases that could be restated as: “The profits aren’t big enough.” What that means, in the long term, is that in coming decades as demand for new resource sources increases and prices of commodities rise, many more large and small projects, let us say projects on the ‘tails’ of the distribution will become feasible. Thus I think when your children are our ages, they will be confronted with much larger and more intractable problems than we are, unless we manage to discover some viable solutions

    I look forward to seeing you again on this forum….

    • Polarbear says:

      And you as well. I am pleased to be conversing with an exploration geologist. My discipline is telecom engineering, practiced across Alaska for many years as you guessed. It has been my privilege to know many miners over the years, including Rhiney Berg, who kept me listening and spellbound.

  4. akbatwoman says:

    I got my e-mail in by 5:00pm today, so did my daughter. Hopefully this disastrous plan will be stopped.

  5. Polarbear says:

    It is well and good to be against a bad project, and against a bad overall economic development approach, like Chulitna Coal. But for every one thing you oppose, there ought to be three things you support. Families need jobs and businesses and steady growth in order to sustain themselves. It is in Alaskans’ nature to build successful enterprises. I hope the Alaska Democratic Party is putting ever more effort and thinking into how to build appropriate and sustainable economic success. Voting families want solutions, not just opposition.

    • Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

      Polarbear – While I suspect I have a great deal of sympathy for your point of view I am a little uncertain because some of what you say confuses me.

      For example by what criteria do you determine that the ratio of things supported to things opposed should be 3:1? That seems quite arbitrary. I don’t want to seem overly pedantic but because your comment is so concise it is irresistable. While it is true that “families” need jobs and businesses, I am halted by your claim that they also need “steady growth”. All that means to me is *profit*. I don’t know of many families who are concerned that they are not making enough *profit*. I know of many who are concerned that they are not making enough to break even.

      I am curious as well as to your omission of mention of the Republican party which appears to control the entire Alaska government. What about them? Are they putting ever more effort and thinking into how to build appropriate and sustainable economic success? One might ask if so, why the gas pipeline project has apparently run aground on Palin Reef and is now soiling the pristine pockets of a Canadian company with $500 million Alaskan?

      If I sound harsh, I apologize in advance. However, your views seem to me overly simplistic and even a bit based upon selective evidence.

      Finally, as many here would tell you, I have tried to keep a consistent position respecting the issues about which I comment, in that I am not diametrically opposed to developments such as mines. In fact I have pointed out more than once that I am a participant in the mining industry. But I can’t subscribe to the idea that there is an elite class of individuals who deserve to own the vast majority of the economic benefits of a cooperative society. Is sustainable economic success in your view equivalent to a few thousand people being worth billions and a few tens of millions of people being worth less than nothing (in monetary terms)?

      • Polarbear says:

        KN: The ratio 3:1 is intended to be a rule-of-thumb about support vs opposition. I just feel a personal responsibility to be careful about opposition. In order to shape the futures of our families and communities we ought to be prepared to point to tangible, attainable goals. There ought to be a multiplicity of positive alternatives to negative. We need to be, and perceived to be, the positive economic alternative.

        Steady growth, to me, means sustainable growth, in the sense that our economy should have enough growth in it to support the growth in job opportunity required naturally to support the growth in population associated with successful families, and to support growth in the diversity of our economy. In terms of indices like ‘profit’, we need a dashboard of indicators which taken together show the footprint of the growth and diversity and quality of life we seek. You are correct that ‘profit’ alone, or perhaps any single indicator alone, is a distortion of what we seek.

        I omitted to mention the Republican Party because they do not hold equitable and civil discussions about what our families and communities want. Both of my State legislators are long-time Republicans, and when they hold ‘town hall meetings’, they strongly push their point-of-view instead of listening, and are simply dismissive of any other point of view. To them, emphasizing families and communities in an economic sense, and sustainable growth and diversity equates to weakness. They seem to be about mega-projects only. To them, “sustainable growth” seems to mean that the next mega-project should fall close on the heels of the previous one, and that the infrastructure we get as a result is what we have to live with. One of the consequences of their approach, as you rightly point out, is strongly unfair economic inequity, ironically based on improper use of public money.

        If we want to steer mining projects in a positive direction, then we need to do some difficult things first. The only business model I know of where the public interest is fundamentally required to be aligned with corporate interest is the nonprofit model. We need to create a new class of Alaska nonprofits in which a preferentially low and stable tax rate and preferential access to some public funding is exchanged for an enforceable emphasis on the public interest. The public interest must be part of the mission of the nonprofit. The nonprofit’s decisions and ongoing operations must be subject to public scrutiny and accountability. We might create a path for shareholder investment in such nonprofits, where the class of security offered has a capped rate of return, with associated low risk. We also need the University of Alaska to really be the land grant college it started out to be, with their mining program strongly focused on practical development of truly contained, safe and affordable mineral extraction techniques. We also need to start looking at the infrastructure required to support economic development as best deployed under local and regional ownership. We are allowing the unhealthy development of statewide commercial monopolies in power generation, fuel supply, shipping, and telecommunications, all infrastructures better owned locally or regionally in order to prevent drainage of the resulting revenues straight out of our state. We need new thinking in these areas. There is a great deal more to say about this, and these initial suggestions are just examples, not exhaustive.

        Thank you for your questions and discussion.

  6. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    I oppose the development of this mine because it is designed in a manner that maximizes profits by externalizing costs. As a direct participant in the mining industry I can tell you that minimaly profitable projects have no hope of going forward. So the profits concerned here must be enormous and the only possible explanation for that being the case is that an equally enormous amount of actual costs has been swept under the rug so to speak.

    From my distant perspective I cannot truly say how competent the responsible authorities in Alaska are respecting their duty to their constituency. But I have the impression that the political environment is the key factor in the ongoing conflict between profit and sustainability.

    Since the population of Anchorage alone is a substantial fraction of the whole I am not optimistic that another scam on the general public will not be perpetrated here, in as much as other even more blatent transgressions have apparently been shrugged off.

    In the simplest possible terms that I can think of the weak link in the ostensibly solid chain of logic that makes this mine, or the pebble mine, a fait accompli is the bureaucrats. Go after them and you might have a chance of disrupting the process.

    • ks sunflower says:

      I hope Alaskans absorb and apply your counsel. You are giving them solid, logical advice.

      Unfortunately, I wonder how they can go after the bureaucrats. Some are so burrowed into the system that it’s tough to even know who they are or what kind of political action is appropriate. I wonder if simple emails or faxes, letters or calls would affect them in any practical way. Still, any constructive action is better than just sitting back and watching this tragedy unfold.

      So many people right now are just struggling to stay afloat that I wonder if they have any energy for anything other than subsistence concerns. I hope my concerns are misplaced, and the Alaskan public will stand up and demand to be heard and that those in power will actually listen with an open mind. Keeping my fingers crossed.

      • Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

        KS – I appreciate the points you make and readily appreciate that without citizen action such issues will always be decided in favor of moneyed interests, profits, and that oh so tempting promise of “good jobs”.

        The bureaucrats may indeed be entrenched. Civil service laws often make it difficult to remove or replace them but there are a lot of ways remaining to bring pressure upon them. The most obvious is of course through elected officials who are their ostensible bosses. Since there is every appearance that to a degree at least the bosses themselves are corrupted, such as the fact that they try to appoint unqualified cronies to important positions, then other methods are needed. The most obvious is scrutiny. Identify who the public employees are in positions of responsibility. Scrutinize their backgrounds, their qualifications, and their track records. Such an effort would require collective action by dedicated individuals but no great skill set in particular other than a bit of diplomacy in asking questions, and a bit or research into public records.

        The state of the economy is of course an issue, that is one reason why it is in the condition it is in. Frightened, sometimes desperate people have little stomach for confronting those who exploit them. At least until they become irrationally desperate. But obviously almost none of us are in that state yet. And the amazing organizational power of the Internet is still open to anyone with the ingenuity and desire to take advantage of it. Fund raising and publishing of vital information are two aspects of the Internet that come immediately to mind.

        That in turn raises the issue of network neutrality which is an obscure issue but of critical importance. And so things grow more complex. That is the nature of world in which we live. I think that most people have the acuity and knowledge to make reasonably good decisions and to process information, provided they are not depending on lies and disinformation and provided they think with their brains instead of their guts.

        Maybe I am too much of an idealist. I will address some other comments in this thread as well.

  7. E of Anc P says:

    We have written and included copies to the AK Army Corp of Engineers. We received an e-mail back about the permits the Dept. of Natural Resources just allowed and the State gave them the permits because supposedly they are for exploratory purpose only and not mining at this time. They answered all the complaints the same way…the permits are for exploratory, not mining. Pretty discouraging, but it is necessary to keep up letting them know it is wrong to permit mining in the Chuitna area, and other areas with Salmon streams such as Pebble, too. I hope others will write and keep writing against the Chuitna Strip Coal mine. Also, we need to all write our State Representatives and Senators to legislate a law to prevent mining through Salmon streams. I’m afraid the next permits they will apply for from the State is to do the mining and we’ll be told the State can’t stop it, as they’ve gone through the permit process. This won’t only affect the Chuitna river system but the whole of Cook Inlet and fish going into other streams in the Cook Inlet.

    Thanks for the article.

  8. Lee says:

    I hope this mining project never gets off the ground. It is absolutely the wrong thing to do, and they would not stop at strip mining. First it is strip mining and then fracking.

    I encourage all of you to fight this.

  9. AlaskaDisasta says:

    http://www.snowbumcanada.com/entry/alex#

    Hmmm – maybe this link will work

  10. AlaskaDisasta says:

    It would be tremendous, fellow Mudflatters, if you could help out the new son-in-law of a friend of mine and vote for his skiing picture at below site. Thank you, guys! You can even vote once every 24 hours :-)))))

    http://www.snowbumcanada.com/entry/alex#

  11. Kimosabe says:

    Did ya’all see the excellent article in the Dec 2010 National Geographic about the pebble mine?

  12. zyxomma says:

    “There has never been a successful coal strip mine reclamation effort in a watershed as wet, cold, and productive as the Chuitna watershed.”

    ——————————————————————————————
    There has never been a successful reclamation effort ANYWHERE ELSE, either, no matter how dry and warm. Strip mining/mountaintop removal is a disgrace; a crime against nature if ever there was one. It has destroyed, forever, much of what we love about Appalachia. If you let it, it will destroy what you love about Chuitna, too.

    At least, in Appalachia, the coal is of the highest quality. It’s low-sulfur anthracite, and the reason it’s so “good” is because it’s so very old, geologically speaking. The coal in Chuitna, on the other hand, is sub-lignite. No one outside China (or another developing country) would ever consider burning it for electricity; it’s too damned filthy. Not caring about such details is why, when my sister was in Beijing, she reported that the sky is always yellow (from the burning sulfur), the air stinks, and everyone has a “cold” or cough.

    Sustainability is the key, here. Salmon fishing can be done sustainably. Strip mining coal cannot. Alaska, please, please, please develop renewable resources for the sake of future generations. Extractive industries are doing their best to kill your state in its infancy (ok, its childhood); taking all the timber, minerals, fish, oil, and gas, and leaving you with scars on all that beauty, all for the sake of the bank accounts of people who aren’t from there in the first place, and won’t stick around after the damage is done.

    Health and peace.

  13. Diane says:

    what a well thought out logical commentary. I did think of one thing that makes perfect sense.
    Think about why palin and other republicans bash science, education and outright state that they are elitist.
    Think about how Creationism defies logic and basic science. Think of how they denigrate evolution and the science that supports it. Think of why they are running for school boards and changing what is being taught in public schools.
    Think of why the republicans are doing this.
    They are doing it for projects like this. They are doing it so that science and scientific studies will automatically be thought of as wrong, elitist, liberal and standing in the way of progress.

    Scientific studies are thought of with scorn and derision.

    Keep up the good work. Let us know what is said of the studies about this project.

  14. tallimat says:

    (snark alert)

    don’t ya just love resource extraction in Alaska?
    we rip, strip and drill just to export it all out of the country…

    this proposed coal mine will do just that, export all the coal out of the US…

  15. ks sunflower says:

    Thank you, indeed! Here’s hoping some legislator in Alaska will introduce a bill to prevent coal mining through salmon streams. That should be a no-brainer.

    Surely, someone in your legislature cares enough to do so. If not, it’s high time, citizens elect people who do come the next election – hopefully, before any damage is done!

    In hopes that even a non-Alaskan voice can count, I will be sending an email per your request.

  16. mea says:

    it is nice to have a Real Issue to consider. Thanks for the informative article.
    Thanks, too, for the reality.

  17. thatcrowwoman says:

    Thank you, Bill, for this call to action on behalf of the salmon, the waters, and all who depend on them.

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