Alaska and federal agencies have notified the developers of the Chuitna Coal Project that information so far submitted for environmental review is inadequate for fully assessing the potential impact of the proposed strip mine on salmon and wildlife habitat.
Further studies lasting a minimum of a year have been requested, and other monitoring efforts could delay actual mining of the Beluga Coal Field for as long as five years, state and federal officials said this week.
PacRim Coal LLP, owner of the Chuitna project, holds a lease on 20,571 acres of land northwest of Tyonek thought to contain an estimated 1 billion tons of ultra-low sulfur, sub-bituminous coal. They hope to mine that deposit over the course of several decades, starting with a 5,000-acre section that could produce 12 million metric tons a year for 25 years. Most of the coal is likely going overseas.
Earlier this year, PacRim submitted freshwater data to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But in a Nov. 13 letter, DNR's Acting Mining Coordinator Tom Crafford told Bob Stiles, project manager for PacRim, that the data would provide too little information for the agency to conduct a thorough review.
The extensive mining operations would alter existing surface and groundwater hydrology, and citing provisions of the Alaska Surface Coal Mining Control and Reclamation Act, Crafford said a minimum of one more year of data collection would be necessary in order to review the project, assess potential impacts, and develop mitigation measures to protect anadromous streams. He presented PacRim with a list of needed studies that could take a minimum of one year to complete, in addition to several ongoing baseline data-gathering efforts.
DNR went further, stating that a minimum of five years of data collection would be necessary to understand the variability in anadromous fish populations in the area. Such studies should start next year and continue "for five years prior to developing the mine site," Crafford said.
Two days later, the EPA's Chuitna project manager, Hahn Shaw, also wrote to Stiles requesting additional fish data, noting the unique project proposed mining through approximately 11 miles of stream 2003, which feeds the Chuitna, over the course of eight years.
"This proposal would result in both direct and indirect impacts to fish and the natural ecosystem function of the Chuit River drainage in the short- and long-term," she said, adding that potential impacts were identified as "a significant issue" during NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) scoping. Shaw said "questions and gaps" still existed in available freshwater aquatic resources baseline data.
Studies requested by EPA include:
* One additional year of adult salmon counts in the Chuit River (the EPA refers to the Chuitna River as Chuit River), and three feeding streams.
* A juvenile fish population study.
* One additional year of quantifying juvenile fish movement.
* An additional winter season of data collection.
* In-stream flow study in areas down gradient from the mine site.
The EPA also has asked PacRim to establish a reference site located upstream of the disturbed area within the river drainage for comparison purposes.
Reached in Seattle on Wednesday, Shaw said the EPA supported the state's request for an additional five years' of studies, adding that the EPA anticipated the U.S. Corps of Engineers would need data from such long-time studies as well.
While the requests for further baseline data is likely to delay applications for necessary state and federal permits, that process continues.
In an interview Tuesday, Stiles, owner of DRven Corp., which is under contract to PacRim, said work on a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and on meeting the requirements of Alaska's surface mining law were proceeding on parallel paths, and that he expected both to be out for public review by late third quarter next year.
"That's assuming the various agencies get through their processes and evaluations," he said.
That timeline may be optimistic.
Bruce Buzby, Coal Regulatory Program Manager for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, confirmed the state was still awaiting further baseline data needed before the state could actually begin any formal review.
"It is really difficult to predict when we are going to get it," he said.
Once the necessary data is in, Buzby said, it might take 12 to 18 months for the state to complete technical and completeness reviews.
Buzby acknowledged there were some questions from PacRim over exactly what was meant by the "five-year" data request. He said PacRim might be allowed to build mine infrastructure while the monitoring studies proceeded, he said. Essentially, five years of monitoring would cover an entire salmon life cycle.
To proceed with the project, PacRim will need several permits from various agencies including the Corps of Engineers, the EPA, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and DNR. The project also will have to pass a Coastal Zone Management Consistency Review.
Stiles declined any substantive comment about potential markets for the Chuitna coal, and would say nothing about any contracts, saying those matters were covered by confidentiality agreements. It is no secret, however, that demand exists in the Far East and along the west coasts of North and South America.
Regarding use of Chuitna coal in Alaska, Stiles again declined comment about specific domestic buyers, but did say the Ladd Landing facility would be able to handle barges and indicated trans-Cook Inlet traffic would be possible.
While the permitting process continues toward application reviews and public comment periods, environmental groups are seeking state and federal action to protect habitats, especially salmon streams, from potentially devastating damage strip mining could cause.
Most recently, Cook Inletkeeper and 11 other organizations urged the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to abandon proposed softening of stream buffer zone rules sought by the Bush Administration, and asked that the existing rules be fully enforced. Cook Inletkeeper executive director Bob Shavelson said concerns stem from Alaska's atypical conditions.
"Alaska coal reserves are typically situated in uniquely cold and wet locations, making adequate water quality and habitat protection as well as reclamation difficult if not impossible," Shavelson said.
Reached in Washington, D.C., Shavelson said it was clear from the DNR and EPA letters to PacRim, that the company was not doing a good job meeting essential environmental requirements.
"The fact is, they haven't done even the very basic studies needed to understand what this mine will do to salmon," he said.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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