Coal project draws fire: Outspoken crowd critical of Chuitna mining plan

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources held a public hearing Wednesday evening at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai regarding a petition to declare the salmon streams within the Chuitna Watershed unsuitable for surface coal mining.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Petla Noden, a UAA student from Dillingham, speaks Wednesday during a public meeting on the proposed Chuitna coal mine held at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai. He summed up the comments of most other speakers when he said, "I like salmon."

The petition, submitted in January of 2010 by the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Cook Inletkeeper, seeks to protect the Cook Inlet and its surrounding communities -- such as Beluga and Tyonek -- from the environmental damage associated with strip-mining, particularly that which would be incurred by the construction of PacRim Coal's Chuitna mining project.

Part of PacRim's plan calls for the removal of 11 miles of Middle Creek, a tributary deemed by the Department of Fish and Game to be significant to salmon spawning in Cook Inlet. The company claims it would be able to restore the stream after more than 25 years of the mine's operation.

Nearly 150 people attended the hearing presided over by two members of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, with 56 signed up to submit spoken testimony. In addition to the representatives present from the DNR, Department of Fish and Game staff members, sport and commercial fishermen, lodge owners, Alaska Native subsistence users, and many others all turned out to speak their minds and hear the input of others.

Many attendees echoed the same complaint: there is no real way to rebuild and restore a salmon stream after its destruction.

"I've looked at many, many projects of this magnitude," said Debbie Oudiz, a Homer resident and retired environmental toxicologist who worked for the California Environmental Protection Agency for over 25 years. "And none of them have been able to restore the environment back to the original conditions."

Oudiz called the plan to rebuild the stream "totally unsubstantiated," saying that PacRim has presented no data supporting its assertion that reconstructing the stream would be possible, nor can it point to any past instances where this sort of restoration has been successful.

"I've seen the fishing industry die in California, Oregon, and Washington," she said. "It will happen here. And when it happens here, it will be phenomenally devastating to the lifestyle, the economy, and the state."

Another major concern that surfaced multiple times during the Kenai hearing is that if PacRim is allowed to destroy a salmon stream for the purpose of strip-mining, it would set a dangerous precedent for future mining endeavors in the state, in effect creating a slippery slope for a giant snowball to tumble down.

"Maybe 150 people will have high-paid jobs, and the people who are putting in this thing will probably make millions on it, if not billions," said Linda Feiler of Anchor Point. "And what will the communities in Alaska get for it? We'll have no jobs, we'll have no salmon, we'll have polluted waters, and we'll have polluted air."

Dozens of petition proponents read from books, outlined areas on the map on the overhead projector, made jokes, and nearly cried.

Even Chuitna mine's project manager Dan Graham spoke, noting that he "now knows what it feels like to be the most unpopular man in the room." Graham graciously thanked everyone for coming and assured the public that the establishment of the mine and the maintenance of a healthy salmon level in the area were not mutually exclusive goals.

As a sign that nobody was really buying it, only two of the more than 100 people in the room clapped when Graham finished and sat down.

Dan Pascucci, an environmental educational specialist from Kenai, used his mandolin to lighten the mood and prevent eyes from glazing over with a tongue-in-cheek ditty about the effects of the mine, singing cheerfully into the microphone:

"You can take my line / You can take my pole / 'Cause there's no more salmon / There's just a great big hole."

Most of the speakers, though, opted for a serious tone, including Kirby Spangler of Palmer, who turned and passionately addressed the assembly and pointed accusingly at the table where the two DNR employees sat.

"It's up to us to force these guys to make the right decision," he concluded.

As the village of Tyonek was snowed in due to a storm, another public hearing regarding the petition will be held there probably the week after next, said Russell Kirkham of the DNR. After the Tyonek hearing, the DNR will have 60 days to decide whether to accept, partially accept, or deny the petition.

Written comments may be submitted to Chuit River Watershed Lands Unsuitable Petition, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 550 W 7th Ave Suite 920, Anchorage AK 99501; or e-mailed to russell.kirkham@alaska.gov.

Karen Garcia can be reached at karen.garcia@peninsulaclarion.com.



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