Black cloud looms over setnet site

Fisherman worries about Chuitna coal mining’s effects on fishing

Posted: Monday, May 07, 2007

Fishing a shore fishery setnet lease since 1981, Terry Jorgensen has seen years when his nets hauled in 92,000 pounds of salmon.

In leaner years, such as the last two when sockeye closures designed to protect the Susitna River fishery in upper Cook Inlet trimmed the catch, he still pulled in 25,000 pounds of fish.

Now, when he looks out across the water from Three-Mile Beach, a black cloud obscures his view of the future — a literal black cloud.

The cloud Jorgensen envisions is one made of coal dust. In his mind’s eye, the 12-mile long conveyor carrying Beluga coal to waiting ships near Ladd Landing — even with its planned dust suppression system — will darken the sky with coal dust, and worse yet, will spill the jet-black dust into the waters of Cook Inlet.

“When you add it all up, the amount of pollution is amazing,” Jorgensen said of the massive Chuitna surface coal mine operation being planned along the Chuitna River between Beluga and Tyonek on the west side of Cook Inlet.

Officials for PacRim Coal, the firm developing the Chuitna Coal Project, say protecting water quality and the area’s fisheries is most critical.

Fishermen, such as Jorgensen, are skeptical of the miners’ promises.

As if the anticipated air and water pollution were not enough, Jorgensen said the coal company plans to build a dock right on the beach where he has his lease.

“His proposed dock drives pilings right through the top of my fish site,” Jorgensen said of the Ladd Landing dock coal project spokesperson Bob Stiles has been describing in presentations he is making to interest groups throughout the Cook Inlet basin community.

In addition to the dock, the coal company plans to erect a 10,000-foot long trestle out into Cook Inlet to extend the coal conveyor to transport ships waiting in deep water for the cargo they will eventually carry to Asian markets.

A gravel bar also will be built out in the water to stockpile mined coal between times when ships are in port.

“You put that big gravel bar there ... it will cause silt buildups that will change all movement of fish,” Jorgensen said. “It will ruin it.”

With his setnet site starting exactly one mile from the mouth of the Chuitna River where salmon are heading to spawn, Jorgensen said he has the best site.

His is one of four sites on Three-Mile Beach. Three others are on Cottonwood Beach to the north.

Besides the expected coal dust and possible silt buildup, other opponents of the coal project predict the mining operation will fill Chuitna River tributaries with toxic mine process water.

Stiles has said 7 million gallons of water that will be put into Chuitna tributaries every day is the same amount that goes into the river now as runoff from rain and melting snow. The only difference, Stiles said, is that the water will run across bare ground, so the coal company will route it to settling ponds to allow any sediments to drop out before the water reenters the river system.

Doubting fishermen are afraid.

“We catch all five species (of salmon) there,” said Jorgensen. “We bleed them, we ice them ... we’re a high-end marketer.”

He said he has an Anchorage processor handle the king salmon he catches and he sells most of his sockeyes to Favco, also in Anchorage.

“Anchorage is eating this Northern District fish,” Jorgensen said.

“You open up this energy corridor and you change this whole area to an energy development area instead of a recreation area for hunting and fishing,” he said.

When asked if PacRim Coal has offered to buy his fish site, Jorgensen said he has not been offered any money.

“I received one letter from Stiles’ land manager. It said they will pay to move me,” he said. “We have the best fishing site. Why would we move?”

Jorgensen said he is not interested in selling off his setnet lease.

“We just want to be left alone — like all Alaskans,” he said.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at

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