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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