Editor’s note: This is part two is a series of stories about the Chuitna Coal Project. Tomorrow’s story will examine what alternate energy sources to coal exist in Southcentral.
Mining the Beluga coal fields across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula may put a spark in the Southcentral Alaska economy, but conservationists say it also will endanger rich salmon spawning streams and add significant pollution to the local atmosphere.
PacRim Coal LP, the company developing the Chuitna Coal Project located within the Beluga deposit, is at work on a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a prerequisite for obtaining state and federal permits to mine a portion of the estimated 1 billion tons of ultra-low sulfur, sub-bituminous coal lying beneath the surface about 12 miles northwest of Tyonek.
The company holds leases on more than 20,000 acres and hopes to excavate as much as 300 million tons over 25 years from the first developed portion of its holdings. The Beluga deposit is among the largest sub-bituminous coal reserves at tidewater in the world.
According to the EPA’s project Web site, land in the area is owned by a mix of private and public entities including the state of Alaska, the Alaska Mental Health Trust and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, as well as Tyonek Native Corporation, Cook Inlet Region Inc. and individuals. Only a few primitive roads built for earlier oil and gas exploration and logging activities disrupt the undeveloped, largely wetlands territory.
An environmental impact statement written in the early 1990s led to permits for an earlier version of the project. But development was delayed and a subsequent decline in the market value of coal in the mid-1990s rendered development unfeasible.
Market prices have since recovered, generating new interest in the coal deposits. But substantive changes in the project’s design and new regulations led EPA to require developers to complete a supplemental EIS. The final SEIS is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2007.
To mine the coal, PacRim says it will need to discharge as much as 7.5 million gallons of water from the site, most of it rainfall and snowmelt, but also significant amounts that could contain a variety of pollutants associated with mine production and equipment maintenance.
In its revised National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) application available through EPA, PacRim said it would remove suspended solids in sedimentation ponds and treat otherwise polluted water before pouring it into local streams tributaries to the Chuitna River. That system is one of Southcentral’s most important salmon producers and a vital resource to subsistence and commercial fishermen.
Other environmental worries include the airborne coal dust, the impact of increased shipping (perhaps 400 more vessels per year) might have on Cook Inlet’s struggling Beluga whale population and the likelihood that excavated coal used locally for power generation would contribute to an increase in local air pollution.
For Judy and Lawrence Heilman, who live about nine miles from the mine site, and closer still to the utility and conveyor corridor, the mine presents a cold, hard fact.
“It will be an end of a way of life,” she said Monday. “It’s just going to be a horrible impact.”
She worries especially about discharging great volumes of water into the Chuitna tributaries and she worries that after sitting in settling ponds, that water may have warmed to the point that it could endanger fish fry.
“Then there is the coal in the air, in our homes, on the beach,” she said. “Personally this is not the legacy I want to leave my children and grandchildren.”
Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inletkeeper, said the project permitting process is being fast-tracked by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and EPA, and its development represents “a critical precedent” for the direction of resource and energy development in Alaska.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” he wrote in the latest Inletkeeper newsletter. “Alaska possesses roughly half the nation’s coal reserves, and as oil and gas prices remain high, coal has become increasingly attractive, especially to burgeoning Asian markets seeking cheap power supplies. But coal is hardly cheap if we factor in the true costs of production and use.”
Strip mining, he said, is a “notoriously intensive” use of land “that destroys watersheds, wildlife habitats and salmon streams, and there are countless examples Outside where coal mining has ruined once vibrant ecosystems.”
Burning coal produces the highest levels of greenhouse gases of any traditional energy source, and greenhouse gases are known to contribute to global warming. Inletkeeper, which monitors temperatures in Kenai Peninsula rivers and streams, has noted those temperatures are rising.
“As Alaska’s salmon streams grow warmer, it’s critical to move forward with energy production that will mitigate rather than aggravate the effects of climate change,” Shavelson said.
Burning coal also releases mercury. According to a study by the University of California Santa Cruz, mercury in California rainwater has been traced to industrial coal burning emissions in China, which relies heavily on coal and accounts for about 10 percent of the total global industrial release of mercury. That is a consideration whether Beluga coal is shipped to Asia for consumption, or burned here in Alaska, Shavelson noted.
The Chuitna mine itself would destroy bear, fish and moose habitat important to commercial, recreational and subsistence users, he warned.
Alaska stands at a crossroads with two options. One, to conserve energy and develop clean power (tidal, wind, geothermal and small-scale hydro). The other, toward “more boom and bust” development, increased pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, Shavelson said.
Chuitna’s developers, insists project spokesperson Robert Stiles, are well aware of the environmental hazards that must be met and overcome for the coal project to proceed. Stiles is president of DRven Corporation, the company hired by PacRim to manage development of the project.
He noted that not only is PacRim producing the new SEIS, but it is providing even more detailed information to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, as required by Alaska Surface Coal Mining Control and Reclamation Act. That law regulates almost all aspects of coal mining, according to DNR’s Web site.
A preliminary permit application under the act has already been filed for the Ladd Landing project, the terminal near Tyonek where coal would be loaded on ships and barges. Stiles said the company expects to file a preliminary application for the mine infrastructure by the end of the year and one for the mine by the end of January.
“Clearly the major issues related to mining are how discharge water affects the quality and flow in stream drainages and the direct effects on anadromous streams,” he said. “Another issue of concern is the marine structures and their effects on commercial fishing and Beluga whales and other marine mammals and marine fisheries. It’s an issue of concern not only to the general public, but also to us. Can we do this and have the minimal effect on those resources?”
Then there is the issue of reclamation. It’s not simply a matter of filling a hole and planting new vegetation, Stiles said. Ideally, the existing hydrologic balance of the region the way it naturally absorbs, transports and discharges water must be maintained as nearly as possible during mining, and restored as nearly as possible when mining is complete.
“You spend an awful lot of time and no small amount of other resources looking at how to reclaim ground,” he said. “Anytime you are working in a water-surplus environment, normally getting vegetation to grow is not a problem. The challenge is getting the hydrologic system to work. We’ve focused a lot of science and engineering on that part of the effort.”
In a letter to the EPA regarding assorted state concerns, DNR’ acting Large Project Manager Tom Crafford noted the potential for habitat loss in streams within the mine area, including Middle Creek and three unnamed tributaries considered important to spawning, rearing or migration of anadromous fish. Crafford recommended that for any unavoidable habitat loss, mitigation in the form of habitat creation be considered.
The agency warned about the potential for impact on the entire Chuitna River system, and raised other concerns about possible disruption to game migration patterns within the road, coal conveyor and utility corridor. Further, Crafford suggested that to cut down on coal dust, covered stockpiles and a fully enclosed conveyor be considered.
Crafford said sedimentation was one of the primary concerns, but that Beluga coal does not present the kinds of problems associated with some coal mines in other parts of the county.
Nevertheless, DNR so far has only seen the preliminary paperwork on the Ladd Landing portion of the project, and Crafford said it wasn’t possible to qualify how the project is doing with respect to the surface coal mining act requirements.
“There is a whole lot of paperwork and details we have not seen yet,” Crafford said. “I don’t want to convey in any sense that this is pre-approved. We have no preconceived notions. However, thus far I haven’t seen any showstoppers.”
The paperwork for the mine itself will entail the most work, he said.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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