Borough ordinance could affect Chuitna mine

Regional watchdog nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper said last week that a Kenai Peninsula Borough ordinance passed this summer could have consequences for the proposed Chuitna Coal Project.

PacRim Coal has proposed mining on about 5,000 acres of a 20,571-acre lease tract in the Beluga Coal Field on the west side of the Cook Inlet, near Tyonek.

According to the Draft Water Management Plan for the project, which was prepared for PacRim in 2010, three tributaries of the Chuitna River could be affected by the plan. The proposed mining area includes about 11 miles of one of those streams, which PacRim has said it will rebuild.


Because the streams are salmon habitat, they could be subject to the andromous streams ordinance passed in June. That ordinance extended the borough’s anadromous stream habitat protection to almost all anadromous streams in the borough, except for the Seward-Bear Creek Flood Service area. Essentially, the ordinance protects anadromous streams on the Kenai Peninsula 50 feet up the bank from the ordinary high water mark. The idea is that protecting the habitat protects the future of the fish.

After presenting a report about the economics of the proposed coal project during a Oct. 6 teleconference, Cook Inletkeeper’s Bob Shavelson and John Talberth, the report’s author, talked about the ramifications of the project, both economically and environmentally, for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The report is titled “Net Public Benefits of the Chuitna Coal Project,” and examines the economics of the project. Cook Inletkeeper commissioned the report with grant funding.

Shavelson, the executive director at Cook Inletkeeper, said the anadromous streams ordinance could be a factor in the project, calling it a “very strong statement” regarding developing in a salmon habitat. Shavelson said the state might try to fight the borough’s right to rely on that ordinance.

“(The ordinance) would apply, but there’s going to be a fight I’m sure,” Shavelson said.

John Mohorich, from the Gilman River Center which coordinates river-related issues for a variety of agencies, said the protection would likely apply to the three streams affected by the proposed mining project.

Mohorich said that it is early in the game to say what the exact impact of the project would be.

PacRim is still working through the environmental impact process with the Army Corps of Engineers and has not applied for its permits, so the project could change and no longer involve the borough’s ordinance.

The ordinance goes into effect Jan. 1, 2012, at which time the borough will be helping manage the streams. If the project stays as planned and advertised so far, Mohorich said the company would likely need a variance permit.

PacRim would be responsible for applying to the borough for that permit, and it would likely go through a public process. The Planning and Zoning Commission would be responsible for considering the application, and either granting it, granting it with added conditions, or denying it, Mohorich said.

Also at play is an Unsuitable Lands Petition filed by Cook Inletkeeper in January 2010. Shavelson said during the phone conference that his organization had contacted the governor regarding a lack of response on that petition last month. Now the governor has until the end of October to respond, at which time the nonprofit is likely to sue, Shavelson said Thursday.

Tom Crafford, director of the DNR’s Office of Project Management and Permitting and the Chuitna Coal Project coordinator, said Thursday that he expects the decision to come any day now, and certainly by the end of the month.

That petition would essentially declare that the land is unsuitable for the mining project because of its value to the salmon and the difficulty of reclaiming the area after the mining project is completed. Dozens of people provided testimony in support of the petition last February at a public meeting in Kenai, with just a few speaking against it.

PacRim’s Dan Graham, who is working on the Chuitna project, left a voicemail with the Clarion saying the company has no comment on the report, but did not immediately respond to another request to talk about the project.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@peninsulaclarion.com.

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