To allay fears of fishermen and hunters that a huge coal mine proposed for the west side of Cook Inlet might cause irreparable damage to hunting grounds and salmon streams, a spokesperson for PacRim Coal Corp. presented the company’s side of things to members of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee on Tuesday.
“We identified early on that the issues of fisheries and water are the most critical,” said Robert Stiles, president of DRven Corporation, a firm representing the coal company planning a surface mine in the Beluga coal fields near the Chuitna River.
Stiles said the Chuitna Coal Project has three major components: mining on 5,000 acres of a 20,000-acre lease area; housing for mine workers and an airstrip; and the Ladd landing development that includes a 10,000-foot trestle-type dock extending out into Cook Inlet to reach water depths of about 60 feet.
Distinguishing the Chuitna surface mining project from open pit strip mining, Stiles said the company will first clear and grub the land, remove peat, then extract the low-sulfur sub-bituminus C coal and replace the vegetation.
“No more than 500 to 700 acres in any given year will not be available to hunting and fishing,” Stiles said.
Runoff water from rain and melting snow, running across the bare soil, will be routed to and collected in sediment ponds before being discharged.
“All water discharged is already part of the hydrologic system,” Stiles said, adding that any discharged water must meet Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water quality standards.
“There will be no decrease in the quality for the Chuitna River or its tributaries,” Stiles said.
He also said materials that are replaced in the reclamation area will be put back in layers to ensure that the aquifer remains at the same depths it was when the coal seam was still in place.
Stiles said the operation will not involve any chemical processing, there will be no mine tailings and the greatest water quality impact will be the sediment picked up in the water as it runs over bare ground.
He said a multi-year, multi-agency environmental impact statement (EIS) process began last June and a draft EIS is expected this coming winter.
“The public comment period occurs when the conclusions of the draft EIS become available,” Stiles said.
After the coal is extracted from seams as deep as 350 feet beneath the surface, it will be crushed to 2 inches and carried by a covered conveyor system 12 miles to the Ladd dock where it will be loaded onto cargo ships.
A dust suppression system is included in the company’s plans, according to Stiles.
One innovative feature of the conveyor is that after it gets the coal to the ship, rather than returning to the mine area with the dirty side down, the 72-inch wide conveyor belt is inverted to return dirty side up, further reducing the potential for dust pollution.
When asked by advisory committee member Paul Shadura what happens if the water picks up toxic metals and carries them into Chuitna River tributaries, Stiles said the company has more than 85 core samples that indicate what they might find.
The samples show a high presence of aluminum and iron already in the ground, he said.
“The coal here is unlike the toxic coals back east,” said Bob Loeffler, a consultant assisting Stiles. “There are no acids or toxic metals.”
When asked about a reported 7 million gallons of mine waste water that will be returned to the Chuitna, he said, “The 7 million gallons of water going into the streams is the same 7 millions gallons that is going into the streams now without the sediment ponds ... at the same rate of flow.”
Stiles answered committee questions about the safety of ships docking in Cook Inlet with its extreme tides and winter ice conditions by saying the ships will be docked “stem and stern to the current” and the end of the T-shaped dock.
He said the project will employ as many people as possible from the local area, meaning Beluga, Tyonek and the Kenai Peninsula.
“The commitment we made to the borough is that the port of entry for the project is the Kenai Airport,” Stiles said.
“Somewhere between the pristine environment that’s there now and a nuclear disaster is the answer we’re after,” said committee member Mike Crawford.
“We don’t want a superfund cleanup site across the way,” he said.
Of the mineable 300 million tons of coal PacRim expects to extract from the coal fields, most will be shipped to Asia, according to Stiles. Some could be available for coal gasification in Alaska, such as at a plant being studied by Agrium for North Kenai.
At present, PacRim Coal has no contracts in hand, Stiles said.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at email@example.com.
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