Coal vs. Fish on Cook Inlet

by Bob Tkacz
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s stock answer to anyone raising environmental questions about any mineral development project is to praise the fairness of the state’s permitting process. “Let the process work,” is Parnell’s mantra. In their handling of the proposed Chuitna coal mine the state Department of Natural Resources, and its commissioner Tom Irwin, are making a mockery of that process and threatening Cook Inlet salmon stocks, not to mention the livelihoods of those who catch them.
Proposed by PacRim Coal LP, the Anchorage subsidiary of Delaware-based PacRim LP, the project is located about 45 miles west of Anchorage on the west shore of the Inlet. It would, literally, sit atop decades-old commercial setnet sites but potential conflicts between harvesters and miners probably won’t occur because the mine would dig 300 feet deep, for 11 miles, into Chuitna River tributaries to get to the coal seam. After the projected 25-year life of the mine the stream would be rebuilt, according to the developer’s plans and presumably the children of today’s setnetters could get back to work.
That level of stream destruction by a mine project is unprecedented in Alaska state history and no such reclamation project has ever been attempted anywhere, let alone succeeded. According to DNR it could be fully permitted within seven months. If that timeframe strikes you as surprising, review the record of DNR’s website posting, public documents and statements by Irwin and other senior permit managers. Try real hard to come away believing DNR’s permit review will be anything other than as much of a rubber stamp as the department can get away with. I couldn’t.
Among the most blatant examples of a lack of balance in the agency that is supposed to promote, and also impartially regulate mineral development in Alaska, is a July 21 presentation given in Tokyo to the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) by Irwin, Ed Fogels, the DNR director of mine permitting, and Larry Hartig, commissioner of the Dept. of Environmental Conservation.
First, one must ask why state officials, who were not accompanied by any PacRim representatives in the trade mission, are serving as the spokesmen for specific projects proposed by private companies. It’s illegal under state law for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to do that. The entire delegation included only those three officials and two personnel from the governor’s Office of International trade.
(And while none have any known fisheries expertise they also spent some time talking fish with Maruha Nichiro, owner of Peter Pan Seafoods. But I digress.)
Part of what Irwin said was a four-hour presentation to JOGMEC was a slide show entitled “Alaska Coal Projects and Infrastructure.: Page 16 of the presentation lists both projects as in the development phase. Page 23, on Chuitna, declares that the project “is currently in permitting stage.” “Permitting expected to be completed in 2011. Production anticipated in 2014.”
Nowhere in the slide show is it mentioned that PacRim had not filed a formal application for its state permits. As previously reported in these pages, PacRim has submitted at least three modeling methods DEC would use to decide whether the millions of gallons the mine will use and discharge will meet water quality standards for copper, aluminum, manganese and possibly zinc.
To me that seems like stacking the deck but DEC’s project liaison, Allan Nakanishi, says it’s not. He and staffers in DNR and the Dept. of Fish and Game all say PacRim has consistently failed to meet its own timelines for completion of field research and the collection of other data. “They are going very slow,” said Russell Kirkham, DNR’s coal regulatory program manager, in June, when PacRim was claiming it would submit its state permit application in August.
Megan Marie, then ADF&G’s project liaison, also said in June that PacRim was still collecting baseline hydrology data. PacRim project manager Dan Graham told me in a July 7 interview that his company was completing its formal applications for the three DNR permits it will need “as we speak.”
Graham didn’t tell me that on June 30 PacRim had applied for a two-year extension for its hydrological drilling permit, but said he expected the application to be filed in August. At this writing PacRim has not filed for permits from the state nor the US Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency.
None of these delays are anything new for PacRim. The 2011 and 2014 dates were “a best case schedule if everything went right and if all agencies deemed it was permitable. None of those decisions have been made,” Irwin said. He said his presentation included a detailed review of the state’s permitting process and also that his listeners are very sophisticated industrialists who understand the ways of the world.
“It’s very clear to the people who participated, and it’s certainly clear to me, that’s an estimated best case schedule and no permits are promised,” Irwin said. I’m not sure if he meant to say it’s not a problem when state officials provide grossly inaccurate information as long as their listeners understand that it’s wrong, or perhaps that completely unrealistic estimates are valid as long as one calls them a “best case scenario.”
PacRim’s June application for its drilling permit extension had a Sept. 24 deadline for public comment but as of Sept. 10, if not later, it wasn’t posted on the DNR Chuitna web page. On Sept. 20 the deadline was extended to Oct. 13, but the extension wasn’t posted on the web page until the next day. History buffs may be interested to note that PacRim applied for and received its first hydrological drilling permit in 1983.
If you think Gov. Parnell has been too busy campaigning for reelection to keep up with what’s going on, you’re wrong. I couldn’t get an interview with him, but his fisheries advisor, Cora Campbell, told me she was assured by DNR that there was no bias in their Japan presentation.
Parnell didn’t respond to the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, which wrote to him expressing their concerns with Irwin’s apparent bias, but Cindy Sims, his international trade office director did. “I can assure you that our permitting process for the Chuitna Project will remain rigorous and permitting decisions will be made only after a complete environmental analysis by state and federal agencies,” Sims wrote in an Oct. 11 letter to the group.

Bob Tkacz writes for the National Fisherman

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Posted by on Dec 15th, 2010 and filed under Point of View. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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