Coal mine proposed for Copper River Delta

Posted: Tuesday, April 11, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A Korean businessman says he wants to develop a coal mine near the Bering River and the Copper River Delta. That would place it within an area the U.S. Forest Service recently proposed as designated wilderness.

The move appears to be still in the talking stages, but it concerns environmentalists and others who value the delta and the surrounding land for their scenery and wildlife.

Hyun Joo Shin, chairman of the Korea Alaska Development Corp., said he plans to build a coal mine on Chugach Alaska Corp. land inside Chugach National Forest within the next five years.

Shin believes that coal prices will be higher then, and he thinks Korea will want to buy more of the resource from Alaska because China will be exporting less.

Shin was in Alaska last week to talk with government agencies about the mine proposal and to tour the Usibelli coal mine near Healy. He also met with Alaska environmentalists to discuss a possible buyout of his company's mining rights.

Several coal-exporting plans have been proposed in Alaska in recent years, but none has come through.

Shin said he was serious about developing the mine. But Shin also said he was willing to consider selling the company's development rights to conservationists -- if the price is right.

He would not say exactly how much that would be, but told the Anchorage Daily News that $10 million would be in the neighborhood.

''Mining is a very risky business,'' Shin said. ''If someone is going to pay enough to satisfy what we are trying to achieve, there is no reason to object.''

Environmentalists are concerned about the mine but also are encouraged by Shin's willingness to sell. If he doesn't sell, then they plan to fight the project.

''I can't imagine this project coming to fruition,'' said Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor and member of the Copper River Delta Coalition, a group working to preserve the Copper River Delta.

In recent months, both development and conservation efforts have heated up around the Copper River Delta.

First, the Forest Service granted Chugach Alaska a long-promised easement to harvest timber around the delta. Chugach has said it has no immediate logging plans, but won't sell its development rights.

Then the Forest Service recommended in a working draft of its forest plan revision that the eastern half of the delta be designated wilderness.

In a separate action Monday, American Rivers, a national environmental group, named the Copper River the country's fourth-most endangered river. It cited the proposed logging road as the reason, but a mine also would threaten the delta, said Scott Anaya of the National Wildlife Federation.

Shin said the mine would operate under careful environmental standards. He said he plans to work closely with the Copper River Delta Coalition if he goes forward with the mine.

Shin's company bought coal rights from Chugach Alaska in 1987. He proposes shipping the coal to the coast by rail. At Controller Bay, the coal would be transported by barge or a floating bridge to deeper water, where it could be loaded aboard ships.

Steiner said potential environmental problems with the mine range from visual scars in what now is de facto wilderness to the potential of coal storage pits leaching into groundwater and eventually the Bering River.

Some of the earliest environmental battles were fought over the delta after President Theodore Roosevelt designated the area a national forest in the early 1900s in part to stop a coal mine proposed by the Guggenheims and J.P. Morgan, Steiner said.

''This is one of the wildest places in North America,'' he said.

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