Mining change may affect fish

Posted: Monday, December 15, 2008

Changes to a federal rule governing mining in and around sensitive salmon streams and other habitats have drawn fire from Alaska environmental groups.

Adopted even as President George W. Bush's administration draws to a close, the new "Stream Buffer Rule" relaxes existing regulations governing how mining companies work in and around active salmon streams. The previous restriction, in effect since 1983, prohibited coal strip mining and waste dumping within 100 feet of streams and other water bodies and was meant to protect not only streams in the mine footprint, but also associated areas around the mine site.

By rewriting and reinterpreting the rule's intent, the Office of Surface Mining liberalized waste dumping restrictions, endangering salmon and other streams, opponents say.

The new rule is a concern to residents of the Upper Cook Inlet region near PacRim Coal LLP's proposed Chuitna Coal Mine.

"We're staring down the barrel of a massive coal strip mine that will directly destroy 11 miles of salmon streams, and dump billions of gallons of mine wastes into our fisheries each year," said commercial set-net fisherman Terry Jorgensen, a spokesman for the Chuitna Citizens NO-COALition. "Our Alaskan businesses and livelihoods are directly threatened by this federal intervention."

Despite detailed comments submitted last year by various Alaska groups calling for protections to Alaska fisheries, the Bush administration promoted the final rule giving federal agencies the discretion to allow coal waste dumping and coal mining in sensitive stream habitats, the coalition said in a recent press release.

"With this new rule, the coal company will be allowed to take away our moose, bear and salmon habitat. That's just not fair. There's no balance in this decision," said Judy Heilman, a resident of Beluga near the proposed mine site and a spokeswoman for the coalition.

Alaska's current stream buffer rules mirror the current federal rules and protect lands from surface disturbances within 100 feet of perennial and intermittent streams, according to Russell Kirkham, manager of Alaska's coal regulatory program within the Department of Natural Resources. Those regulations allow for waivers provided the Department of Natural Resources makes certain findings justifying such waivers, he said. Waivers would allow stream diversions, installation of culverts, and other disturbances, and are covered by regulations that must be met in every case, among them minimizing impacts to fish and wildlife.

Kirkham said the state has not yet received the final language of the new federal rules. Once it does, a process will begin to determine how well state rules match up, whether they meet the minimum federal standards and how to change state rules if they don't. That could take more than a year and would include public comment periods.

But Kirkham also said that he believes Alaska's rules will continue to exceed or meet the new federal regulations on most issues. Alaska has the option of retaining its own, more stringent regulations.

"In the end, Alaska may decide we like ours better," he said.

The federal buffer rule changes have produced angry protests in other parts of the nation, as well as in Alaska. In Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, there are fears that the decision could lead to a new wave of mountain top removal surface mining. Reportedly, environmentalist organizations Outside have launched an online campaign urging President-elect Barack Obama to reverse this "parting gift" from the Bush administration.

Kirkham said that West Virginia was losing streams because mining operations "were basically burying them." He said Alaska regulations require restoring and reclaiming disturbed streams to a functional state -- that is, capable of supporting fish and wildlife. He said PacRim, DNR, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are working on procedures for meeting that provision should Chuitna be built. The same process attends all coal mining operations in the state, he said.

Lamenting the new federal interpretation, Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inletkeeper, said the Bush administration had taken a prohibition against destroying fish habitat and made it discretionary, leaving it "up to coal companies and bureaucrats" to decide whether to protect fish habitat.

"Do we, as Alaskans, want to sacrifice our salmon streams and the renewable resources they produce to the boom and bust economies that come from coal strip mining?" he said.

Noting the protests elsewhere in the country, Shavelson said the rule change proposal arose in response to mountain top removal, but its applications and impact are national.

"There was this funny interface between the Clean Water Act and the definition of fill. The Bush administration changed the definition of fill, but it still ran into this (stream buffer zone) rule."

It is that conflict that the new rule is designed to eliminate, Shavelson said.

Phone calls seeking comment from Steve Borell, spokesman for the Alaska Miners Association, were not immediately returned.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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