Alaska salmon threatened by coal

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 today or by sending comments to the state’s Department of Natural Resources – or both.
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. 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.
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.
Have I mentioned Alaska has no law that prevents mining through salmon streams?
Let our government officials know that Alaska shouldn’t sacrifice salmon streams for the sake of coal or any sort of mining.

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Posted by on Jan 19th, 2011 and filed under Editorial. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Responses for “Alaska salmon threatened by coal”

  1. praetor01 says:

    I’ve enjoyed your outdoor writing for decades, Mr. Sherwonit. But if you really want to do something for our fisheries, militate against the 60,000+ king salmon that are trawled up, killed and discarded as bycatch each year instead of railing against a resource development that affects mainly only one stream. BTW: in a related note, there is more tonnage of halibut discarded as bycatch each year as is allowed for the entire sport catch, charter and individual.

    • Sockeye Sam says:

      I find it amazing as a sportsman who has an interest in protecting our wildlife, that every opportunity to stop any mine or energy related endeavor is met with such disproportionate resistance. Why? Who’s funding all this negative advertising? No matter where you step in this state it’s a watershed, wildlife or fish habitat. We build our homes in the forests and on the river banks with pride, but God forbid we look for a way to pay for or heat or light or get to it. I drive the lower 48 in a motor home from one end of this country to the other annually. Other than the major metropolitan cities I drive past 8 thousand miles of open unpopulated land. (Forget the thousands of idle wind generators on windy days I drive past.) We have learned from the mistakes of the lower 48. I lived in the Marina at Long Beach Ca. for several years within only hundreds of feet away from several camouflaged oil and gas wells. When you watch CSI Miami, Dexter, NCIS etc. look closely. They’re filmed in and around the Long Beach Marinas, and I bet you didn’t see the oil wells. We have fewer roads in Alaska than Hawaii. This mine and Pebble will provide far more benefit than harm. The North Slope and offshore oil and gas will provide billions in jobs and revenue. What’s to discuss? The plight of the Polar Bear is greatly exaggerated. We have less than 10% of the known habitat. As I’ve witnessed we don’t have much effect on them at all. Russia and Canada have far greater area than Alaska does. Get out from behind your desk and drive around this country and you just might get the real picture rather than that painted by lower 48 tree, bear, and whale huggers.

  2. david says:

    Who cares. alaskans dont care about there state , they only want handouts to keep coming. Pebble or this mine, its all the same. F the fish and F the environment. No lessons learned from the lower 48. Hey maybe we should add this mine and Pebble to the superfund cleanup NOW so we can get more federal funds. I’m Republican and Conservative.

    • ssalaska says:

      Reply to David…
      If you don’t live in Alaska… SHUT UP…..and don’t say anything about Alaska… If you do you have the right to have an opinion. Alaskans do care about their environment. I work and play in Alaska. I am not looking for the next hand out. I am looking for the next JOB… So that I can support my family and continue to live in Alaska. I cherish Alaska and its beauty. But I also want to develop our resources responsibly. The “Greenies” never quite. If you all are so worried about our environment then you all should start in foreign countries. Like China… for one. Oh and take everything out of you life that has to do with HYDRO-CARBONS and then come back and talk to me about not developing anything in America ever again.. Take a flying leap in other words… I am tired of the Greenies wanting gas for there cars, gas to heat there homes, gas to keep the power on in their house, gas to get there groceries to the stores and to there homes. But when we want to responsible develop our resources….. They all say..NOT IN OUR BACK YARD>>>…..Just sayin

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