Editor’s note: As energy issues continue to plague the country, the future development of Cook Inlet’s resources remains in question. Coal at Chuitna, gold at Pebble Mine, numerous offshore gas reserves and the reduction of oil flow from the 12 platforms currently churning in the Inlet point to the need for both economically sound and environmentally responsible development.
This is the fourth in a five-part series, where the Homer Tribune is looking at how Cook Inlet has transformed from a humble, twisting waterway to one of the most resource-rich areas in the nation.
• With only one coal mine operating in Alaska, regulators note it’s not so easy these days to develop the resource
By Naomi Klouda
A field near Port Graham hides the marks of a sizable coal town that was established in the 1850s. All the remnants of the town disappeared – except for the stone outline of a dock.
At the height of operation, Coal Village was the third-largest Russian town in Alaska, exceeded only by Kodiak and Sitka. Russian history recorded 20 houses, a church, a warehouse, a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, stables, a small foundry and mining structures.
“It’s all overgrown now,” said Port Graham Chief Patrick Norman. “Elders still have stories. They used the Native people as workers.”
While written history gets some of the details wrong – the coal mine is listed as being in English Bay and some accounts claim Russian convicts worked the mine. But one detail that seems fairly certain is that thousands of tons of coal were mined over a 12-year period, supplying ships until Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867.
Today, the Abandoned Mine Program with the Department of Natural Resources only briefly mentions Coal Village, a site that was apparently forgotten by all but the local population.
According to archives provided by Joe Wehrman, program manager of Alaska’s abandoned mines, “Port Graham was first mined by the Russian American Company in 1855. This company used the coal for their steamer until 1867. The lignite was used locally and for steamers until the early 1920’s. One or two thousand tons were used annually.”
Wehrman said his department has a lot to keep track of, given that the state has 7,300 potential or actual mine sites listed – mostly abandoned placer mines. This coal mine at Port Graham was the only one the Russians ever pursued.
Geologists in territorial times, likely for the Bureau of Mining, made a recommendation for “further consideration of this site.”
“But without going through historical archived boxes I cannot tell for certain if that ever happened,” Wehrman said. “I would expect that, had there been any remaining safety issues, the Port Graham folks would have been talking about it to someone who would have contacted us by now.”
Wehrman said he looked back through the AML Program’s completed project list and didn’t see anything.
“I also looked back at the historical data sets in the national Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System (AMLIS) that the USDI Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement maintains and didn’t find anything there either,” he said.
Most people know the story of how Homer was established as a coal mining town at the end of the Spit in the late 1890s. Coal on the beaches is a constant reminder of the resource’s presence wedged in the bluffs and on submerged shelves lining the shore. A lesser-known detail is that Cook Inlet has large coal deposits that periodically have different groups taking an interest. However, the majority of those asking about claims don’t come back, said the head of the state’s coal program, Russell Kirkham.
Covering coal’s tracks
Simeon Kvasnikoff, an elder living in Port Graham who remembers much of the oral traditions of the area, recounts combing the site of the old Coal Village for artifacts.
“The Russians put the Natives to work building a dock there for hauling the coal out,” Kvasnikoff said. “They had to haul it with a wheelbarrow to build the dock.”
Kvasnikoff said that, at one time, a store and a church were built over there.
“I’ve been looking around and I couldn’t find anything,” he explained. “My mother and father were the first ones to live over there after the Russians left. They lived in a store the Russians left.”
His mother and father went to live at the old Coal Village in 1919-1920, after they had married in Seldovia. The village is described as being about three to four miles from Port Graham and about that distance from Nanwalek.
“My mother told me she used to find gold coins on streams that Russians dropped,” Kvasnikoff said. “When they bought the sea otter furs, they paid the Natives in gold coins.”
The beach near the site of the dock is bare of rocks now, exposing a sandy shore. Kvasnikoff said rocks used from the beach were hauled by wheelbarrow to build a rampway for the coal haul.
Alaska’s one coal mine
Like the project at Coal Village, few of Alaska’s coal prospects lasted very long. The one most often talked about historically was at Sutton. Established by Evan Jones, it is reputedly a polluter of the area. Jones spent his life working in coal mines, opening a mine in Homer during World War II. He died in Homer on March 27, 1950. Evan envisioned building a dock below the bluff on the beach and shipping the coal to Fort Richardson by barge.
“But he was never able to establish a market for coal in Homer because people could pick it off the beach after it had fallen from the ocean bluff deposits,” according to a historical record at the Alaska Bureau of Land Management.
For all the endeavors dreamed up, most of Alaska’s coal remains safely in the ground or below the tides.
Only the Usibelli Mine is currently being operated, and it has run since 1943.
Another mine in the works is the Chuitna Coal project proposed by PacRim by Tyonek. It’s development is of concern to residents who depend on the clean waters of the Chuitna. It is one of the many coal deposits in Cook Inlet, said Kirkham, the coal program manager for the Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water.
“There are numerous occurrences, and there has been mining and collection for personal uses throughout the history of Cook Inlet,” Kirkham said. “Cook Inlet is a large basin with coal deposits rimming the entire basin.”
Geological systems favorable to creating oil, gas and coal were in abundance when Cook Inlet was formed.
“Oil, and gas generally form from ancient deposits of organic material such as algae and planktons falling to the bottom and accumulating on the deep sea floor,” he explained. “Coal is more from a shallow-water, marsh-type system. Think of the Mississippi Delta. In some areas, plant material is being deposited right now. It gets preserved and compressed, and forms coal deposits.”
Kirkham oversees the applications submitted by PacRim for the Chuitna project.
“They are still in the application phase. The company is working with the Environmental Protection Agency on the National Environmental Policy Act process and finalizing their supplemental environmental impact statement,” Kirkham said.
He has been out to the mine site numerous times, completing inspections of the proposed mine site, and talking extensively with local residents at both Tyonek and nearby Beluga, a group of about 200 total.
“They are very concerned about their way of life and changing the way they live,” Kirkham said. “They are trying to maintain their community and way of life, and keep the younger adults in the community. Once the younger adults leave, it’s very easy to lose them, so they see the benefits of developments.”
It’s Kirkham’s job to listen to the concerns expressed by Beluga and Tyonek residents about their fears that the coal project will pollute and destroy water systems.
“No matter what they think of the project, I still have to listen to their concerns,” he said. “Like their concerns about the water that comes in contact with the mine. Changes in water have a direct effect on their way of life. It’s hard to reassure them this early in the project, but we do listen and we pass this along to the company and say, ‘you need to listen to these concerns.‘”
And although Usibelli has been extracting coal for the past 66 years, Kirkham pointed out that the area has not been destroyed.
“They have been good stewards of state lands,” he said. “They don’t have water quality issues or fish issues, so in some ways it’s not a good comparison to the Chuitna Project. We inspect that site every month.”
As a “mineral district,” its streams didn’t have much in the way of fish to begin with.
“When we start our technical review, we will look at how much water is intercepted as ground water, and how much is disturbed or diverted,” Kirkham said. “We’ll use their information, but come up with our own interpretation and our own conclusions of what it means.”
And while the Chuitna project is more complicated than the Usibelli one, “all water has to meet state water quality standards,” Kirkham explained. “How water interacts with ground water, how it percolates, how it passes through the system; every mine has its own water challenges. Every one at Usibelli relates to another kind of water problem. As a state agency, it’s something we need to really keep in mind.”
Getting out of coal
While much of the world seems to be trying to significantly cut emissions, other parts of the world continue to actively pursue coal markets. Australia, which possesses huge coal reserves, supplies much of the coal used in Pacific Rim nations, and uses coal in its own power generation. That continent is a battleground where the war between coal plant workers and those wanting to phase out coal are engaged in the age-old conflict of jobs versus environment.
Coal-fired plants are one of the biggest generators of carbon dioxide; a major contributor to global climate change, which affects polar regions more than others. The impact in Alaska – melting glaciers, endangered polar bears, changes in water temperatures – means the world’s use of coal has a direct impact.
So why get into the coal business?
An article in Sierra Magazine on the proposed Chuitna Project worried that, “the Chuitna mine and numerous other in-the-works coal projects would launch what some are calling the ‘Alaska coal rush.’”
Author Tomas Alex Tizon wrote: “Such an explosion of coal production would bring to the so-called Great Land an extraction industry that has devastated vast portions of the Lower 48. The effects would be many and far-reaching: from clearing out wilderness and infringing on the outback lifestyles of many residents, to an acceleration of the epic disintegration of ancient glaciers brought on by warming climates. At stake are not only Alaska’s land and waters, but also its allure as the country’s last true frontier.”
It’s true that development companies are interested in Alaska’s coal; some for its low-sulfur and low-mercury content, said DNR’s Kirkham. Sulfur is an ingredient in acid rain – if Alaska coal is low in this, the prospect of mining its coal becomes more attractive.
“But there is not as much as (the Sierra Magazine article) makes out,” Kirkham said. “It’s hard to do anything fast on any development in the state.”
Coal leases are tied up with companies waiting for markets to open, and many hold on to leases for years and years, he said. The state and federal baseline environmental requirements can also take many years.
CIRI Regional Native Corp., which has the largest coal reserves on its land near the Chuitna site, has no plans to develop it in the near future.
“We have natural gas and coal deposits in Cook Inlet, but of all the resources we are most aggressively pursuing, wind and gas are the biggies,” said Jim Jager, CIRI’s director of public relations.
A wind farm at Fire Island that recently won approval is projected to add to the region’s energy grid by the year 2011, he said.
In the meantime, PacRim’s proposed mine at Chuitna could take longer than that before coal is brought out.
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