Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 6:26 PM on Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jan. 19 hearing to focus on coal mine

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources will hold a public hearing Jan. 19 at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai to help determine if the state of Alaska will allow coal strip mining through a salmon stream in the Chuitna watershed near Tyonek and Beluga in Upper Cook Inlet.

The mine project has been in the works since as far back as 1990, proposed by PacRim Coal, a Delaware corporation funded by Texas investors. Located 45 miles west of Anchorage, it would be Alaska's largest coal strip mine.

There is no precedent in Alaska for permitting mining in active salmon streams, and fisheries biologists and other scientists say it is unlikely that post-mine mitigation would restore the ecosystems.

"PacRim plans to remove a significant portion of Middle Creek," Dr. Kendra Zamzow with Citizens for Science in Public Participation, told the Chuitna Citizen's Coalition. "Recreating such a complex river system and salmon habitat after removing the entire stream bed, from bank to bank down to a depth of 350 feet, is functionally impossible."

As currently proposed, the mine would remove 11 miles of Middle Creek, a major tributary of the Chuitna and a stream identified by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as "significant to salmon." It also would discharge an average of 7 million gallons of mine waste and runoff into the Chuitna River every day, which would then flow into Upper Cook Inlet.

Middle Creek supplies about 20 percent of the coho salmon in the Chuitna drainage.

Opponents have been surprised to learn that no law currently exists to ban mining through a salmon stream. At this time, state agencies may issue permits that would allow the bank-to-bank removal of a salmon stream. This is in contrast to logging rules which require buffers around salmon streams.

Allowing a mine project to destroy a healthy salmon stream could set what many consider a dangerous precedent for the Pebble Mine project in the Bristol Bay drainage.

Terry Jorgensen is a setnet fisherman whose shore lease fishery on the west side of Cook Inlet is threatened by PacRim's proposal. He wants to see legislation that will protect salmon streams from mining.

"Governor Parnell says he won't trade one resource for another, yet the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine would trade sustainable salmon runs for a finite amount of coal bound for export to Asian power plants," Jorgensen said. "This project will put fishermen out of business for the short-term profits of outside companies. To protect the rights of Alaskans, there ought to be a law against mining through a salmon stream."

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 or industry websites.

According to the DNR website, PacRim Coal LLC has made significant changes to the proposed project and is currently working on updating the application. PacRim has not given a time frame for the submission of the updated applications.

The public hearing will be from 6-9 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Challenger Learning Center, 9711 Kenai Spur Highway, Kenai. For more information visit the Chuitna Citizen's Coalition website at http://chuitna.org/.

Comments can be sent to Russell Kirkham, Coal Regulatory Program Manager, Division of Mining, Land and Water, 550 West 7th Avenue, Suite 920, Anchorage, AK 99501-3577 or e-mail russell.kirkham@alaska.gov.

Opposition to Gov. Sean Parnell's pick to replace Denby Lloyd as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Cora Campbell, continues to grow, with the latest blow coming from the Ketchikan Herring Action Group.

The group points to her former employment as executive director of the Petersburg Vessel Owner's Association and the endorsement of United Fishermen of Alaska.

In a letter to the Legislature, which still has to confirm Campbell's appointment, the group stated, "During her tenure as Fisheries Advisor to the governor, it was difficult if not impossible to reach the governor on issues that conflicted with these powerful seiner organizations, especially those related to subsistence, sport fishing, and conservation. Her bias is well known throughout Southeast Alaska."

The Alaska Native Brotherhood also recently came out against Campbell's appointment, saying, "We have serious concerns that someone so young and inexperienced and who has such close ties to the commercial fishing industry will lack the maturity and judgment to negotiate the difficult issues facing Alaska and to serve the many constituents for Alaska's wildlife resources."

Campbell is 31.

The ANB urged Parnell to broaden his search. Campbell's name was one of two submitted for the position by the Joint Board of Fisheries and Game. She has been serving as acting commissioner since Dec. 1.

One of Homer's legislative representatives has also expressed concerns. Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, came out against the pick. He told the Kodiak Daily Mirror his concerns stem from Campbell's lack of a formal science background because he believes it could make her more likely to make decisions based on politics instead of science.

"I thought (previous commissioner Denby Lloyd) was a great example," he said. "He was in charge of the (fish and game) office here, he knew how to deal with other scientists and he knew when they were blowing smoke.

"I'm just afraid that having a commissioner without that experience and without that knowledge and without that academic background could be a little dangerous for us."

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.