Off limits?

Coalition asks state to rule Chuitna unsuitable for surface coal mining

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2007

A group of citizens and conservation groups have petitioned the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to declare lands within the Chuitna River watershed as unsuitable for coal mining, a move that conceivably could lead the state to block plans for a major surface coal mine in the region.

The legal petition filed by the Chuitna Citizens No-Coal Coalition notes that under the Alaska Surface Coal Mining Control and Reclamation Act, DNR is required to designate an area as unsuitable for coal mining if reclamation is not technologically feasible.

In this particular case, DNR could designate the area unsuitable for the strip mine being planned by the PacRim Coal, because strip mining would irreparably damage aquifers, natural systems and aesthetic values.

The Chuitna mine threatens more than 30 square miles of fish and game habitat, including tributaries of the salmon-rich Chuitna River, the coalition said in a press release Thursday. Additional adjacent leases could expand the disturbed area to more than 55 square miles.

“This isn’t the Usibelli coal mine or some other upland coal mine where conditions are relatively dry,” said Judy Heilman, spokesperson for the Chuitna Citizens No-Coal Coalition. “The wetlands and streams of the Chuitna area represent a unique and complex system that supports our salmon and our Alaskan way of life. DNR cannot pretend these habitats can simply be replaced once the mining corporation takes what it wants.”

Attorney Becca Bernard, with Trustees for Alaska, said that once wetlands and overburden are stripped from the land and the coal as deep as 300 feet in places is removed, natural water flow would be massively altered.

“DNR must recognize there is no feasible technology to return the land to pre-mining conditions — especially here in Alaska’s unique cold and wet weather ecosystem — as required by law,” Bernard said.

The coalition’s move is the first time the state’s control and reclamation law has been used in an attempt to block a mine.

Alaska is thought to possess roughly half the nation’s coal reserves. High energy prices have increased interest in coal extraction, but PacRim’s plans would send most of that coal to Asian markets.

Fallout from Asian and Russian coal-fired power plants is considered the likely source of elevated mercury levels currently being found in Alaska fish, a condition recently recognized by Gov. Sarah Palin.

“Why would we destroy salmon streams in Alaska with a massive coal mine, then set ourselves up for more mercury in our fish when old Asian power plants burn this coal?” said setnet fisher Terry Jorgensen.

A recent Freedom of Information Act request showed there have been regular meetings, teleconferences and document exchanges between state and federal agencies and the developers, Bernard said.

A copy of the 61-page petition can be found at and at

The petition noted the Chuitna watershed’s remoteness, its richness in fish and wildlife, and its natural, cultural and aesthetic values — all fragile and easily damaged resources. That damage, the petition continued, would be irreparable, and thus an argument that the area should be declared unsuitable for all types of surface mining. The petitions said a state statute would bar DNR from issuing permits while the petition is pending.

The petitioners include individuals as well as organizations such as Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Center for the Environment, Alaskans for Responsible Mining, and the no-coal coalition.

Bernard said petitioners in other states have successfully stopped mining projects under the federal rules or their states’ versions of the federal law.

For instance, in 1979 petitioners were successful in getting federal land near Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah designated as unsuitable for surface mining.

In 1995, citizens in Tennessee petitioned the Secretary of Interior to designate 85,588 acres in and around Fall Creek Falls State Park and Natural Area as unsuitable. In 2000, most of the petition area was so designated.

The petition process has been used several times in Kentucky to protect cultural resources, and in 1983 was used to protect an area in the Big Bend region of Kentucky’s Green River.

Bernard said stopping major projects takes work but is possible.

“People have to try,” she said.

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