Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 7:51 PM on Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Residents weigh in on Chuitna coal project

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

Blue river water, fall-colored cottonwood trees, snow-covered mountains and a cloudless blue sky. That was the untroubled image of the area around Chuitna River as projected at the "Chuitna Mine and Mothers Against Mercury" discussion sponsored by Cook Inletkeeper in Homer on March 31.

Not so untroubled was testimony given by Chad Chickalusion of the Tyonek tribe, given at a hearing about the Chuitna Coal Project in Tyonek on Feb. 19. The village of Tyonek is located near the mouth of the Chuitna River on the west side of Cook Inlet.

"What am I going to eat? I can't eat money. I can't eat coal. I eat moose meat. I eat fish. I live off the land. My grandfather showed me how to do that. ... He said don't pollute anything," said Chickalusion.

Referring to the Chuitna, Chickalusion continued, "I drank that water. I packed that water for my grandma. That water came from that river right there. And it still comes from there. You're going to pollute it."

Under an exploratory permit obtained in 2003, PacRim Coal has constructed wells and a weather station near the Chuitna. PacRim's plan includes constructing a strip mine for coal northwest of Tyonek and building facilities to export the coal, including a mile-long dock to accommodate bulk vessels measuring up to 1,200 feet. Plans call for removing 11 miles of Middle Creek, a tributary of the Chuitna River, "the most productive king salmon river flowing into the West Cook Inlet Management Area," according to a February Alaska Department of Fish and Game report to the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

PacRim has claimed it will be able to restore the stream after more than 25 years of mining operation.

The project is still in the pre-submittal phase. The Corps of Engineers is the current lead agency, said Serena Sweet, project manager with the Corps.

"PacRim is working to put together the final project proposal, the description. Once we receive that, we're hoping to update the website and get more information out so people can take a look at what the status is," said Sweet, adding the web update may be done as early as Friday. The information currently on the site was provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, lead agency on the project until Oct. 31 when EPA's role in the permitting process was transferred to the state of Alaska.

Sweet said a draft supplemental environmental impact statement for the project may be completed as early as 2012.

In 2007, the American Rivers Program designated the Chuitna River one of the nation's 10 most endangered rivers.

"Even in a state known for wild salmon and wild country, the Chuitna is special, producing some of Alaska's largest king salmon. A massive, proposed coal mine threatens the Chuitna with plans to dump millions of gallons of mine waste a day into the river's tributaries and wreck more than 30 square miles of the river's headwaters," said an American Rivers Program report.

In January 2010, the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Cook Inletkeeper filed a petition seeking to protect Cook Inlet and surrounding communities, such as Tyonek and Beluga, also near the Chuitna, from environmental damage associated with strip mining, with a decision expected later this month.

"Right now the governor is still deciding whether to grant the petition to declare salmon streams in the Chuitna watershed as unsuitable for mining," said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper. "We're really highlighting the quote (Gov. Sean Parnell) has said many times: 'I don't trade one resource for another.' Here's his chance to prove it."

In January, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources held a public hearing at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai to address the petition. Nearly a third of the 150 people attending gave spoken testimony. In the face of testimony criticizing the mine, PacRim project manager, Dan Graham noted that he "now knows what it feels like to be the most unpopular man in the room."

At the March 31 meeting in Homer, Shavelson fielded comments and questions from an audience of about 40 people. Many involved the impacts of coal, which fed into a presentation by Sarah Petras of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, a statewide grassroots environmental health and justice organization.

"We're concerned because it contains a lot of highly toxic chemicals that are released in various stages of processing," said Petras, focusing her comments on mercury.

A chart provided by Petras illustrated the coal-to-mercury cycle of Alaska coal shipped to China and emissions, including mercury, from coal burned in China to produce electricity traveling back to Alaska in a brown cloud visible from space. In 2007, former Gov. Sarah Palin issued guidelines for the safe consumption of fish by Alaska women and children due to levels of mercury, "a toxic metal that can harm the developing nervous systems of unborn babies and young children."

"The point is that we want to keep mercury out of the fish, not fish out of people," said Petras.

Shavelson was asked what "clean coal" was supposed to mean.

"The same as healthy cigarettes. ... You can go all the way back to Santa Claus and coal gets a bad name," said Shavelson, drawing a laugh.

With a decision on Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Cook Inletkeeper's petition expected by April 20, Shavelson encouraged the public to make their concerns known. An online petition is available at www.obviouslaw.org.

Calls to PacRim Coal were not returned by press time.

To view new information on the proposed Chuitna Coal project and the SEIS process, due Friday, visit www.chuitnaseis.com. For information on the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, visit www.chuitna.org. For information on Alaska Community Action on Toxics, see www.akaction.org. For the guide to eating fish safely, visit www.epi.hss.state.ak.us/