By Jenny Neyman
Judy and Lawrence Heilman, of Beluga, have gotten used to feeling ignored in their fight to stop PacRim Coal’s Chuitna mine project, the proposed strip mine that could cover about 30 square miles in the Beluga Coal Fields near the communities of Tyonek and Beluga.
The proposed Pebble Mine, with its better-funded opposition, has garnered more attention and oppositional support, while it seems the Chuitna Mine project has barely registered on even other environmental groups’ radar, much less the consciousness of the rest of the state, Judy Heilman said. Much of their five-year battle has felt like shouting into the wind.
But on Jan. 19, those winds shifted, and the Heilmans heard a big response to their calls. About 150 people showed up at a public hearing in Kenai held by the Department of Natural Resources to gather feedback on a petition to designate certain lands within the Chuitna project area as unsuitable for coal mining. The position was filed by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of Cook Inletkeeper and the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, of which Judy is president.
People drove through a snowstorm from Anchorage, communities in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and other areas of the peninsula. They flew over Cook Inlet from Beluga, tried to fly from Tyonek — weather kept some planes grounded — and people came out from their homes in the central peninsula area. Of the 130-plus people who gave public testimony at the meeting, only one spoke in favor of the mine. All others spoke in favor of the petition, which seeks to have salmon streams and habitat within the Chuit River watershed protected from surface coal mining.
“Seeing all of you here makes me cry. Thank you. When we first started this fight, we thought we were alone,” Judy said, as she started her five-minute window of testimony in the three-plus-hour meeting.
Lawrence Heilman has lived in Beluga for about 35 years, having worked for the Chugach power
plant in the area. Judy has lived in Beluga for nearly 25 years. They’re year-round residents, retired now, and would like to spend their retirement enjoying their property, not worrying about the potential harms that could be caused in their area if the mine is allowed to proceed.
Judy said that they aren’t against resource development, they’re just against doing it in a way that would compromise another resource, such as fish habitat. She said that when they first started hearing about the proposed mine, she and Lawrence had an open mind toward it.
“They were talking about, ‘Well, we’re going to have this coal mine, people are going to have wonderful jobs, it wasn’t going to harm the environment, blah, blah, blah.’ And so we thought, ‘Well this might work,’” she said. “But then the more we found out about mining through 11 miles of salmon stream, 350 feet deep, pumping 7 million gallons of water a day out of the mine area, we thought, ‘Where’s this water going to go? How are you going to replace the salmon stream?’ We started doing some research and there’s nowhere where they’ve really restored or reclaimed a salmon stream. It’s not that we’re against using our resources, but we just can’t trade one for another.”
The Chuitna Citizens Coalition was formed and the Heilmans became spokespeople of the anti-Chuitna movement. They’ve certainly done a lot of speaking — writing letters to the editor and editorial pieces to newspapers, calling into radio programs, lobbying their elected representatives, staffing booths at sport and trade shows —anything to get the word out wherever they could.
The first petition filed to protect area waterways from mining three years ago was rejected by DNR, and supporters of the petition didn’t even get a public hearing on that go-around, Heilman said. She’s extended several invitations to Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey to visit the area, but the visit hasn’t happened after one trip got canceled due to weather.
The group has also tried to rally support among the community. Heilman said that most residents of Beluga and Tyonek are against the mine, though the Tyonek Native Corporation, the village corporation representing the Tyonek-area Natives, supports it. As a major landowner in the area, TNC stands to benefit a great deal from the mine, and also supports the economic development the mine could bring to the area. Having the corporation support the mine can be confusing to outsiders who may not realize that actual, year-round residents don’t support it, Heilman said.
“We were a little frustrated for a while. Pebble was getting all the attention. But the last six months people have really started to pay attention. We’ve been to sports shows, and people say, ‘Oh, we need jobs, we need jobs.’ Then they’ll say, ‘What are they going to do? They can’t do that. DNR won’t stand for that.’ And we say, ‘Well, there’s no law against it,’” Heilman said. “We just educate them and let them look it up for themselves. You can’t change people’s minds if they’re for it unless they see the facts. We’ve really felt like people are starting to learn the real facts now.”
All this contributes to the feeling of talking with no one listening. That feeling was dispelled at the Jan. 19 meeting. After listening to speaker after speaker cite reports and statistics, give impassioned accounts of the importance of wild Alaska salmon, and in general speak about the necessity of protecting the Heilman’s backyard, as though it were their backyard, too, Heilman said she was pleased and surprised by the turnout, and moved by the show of support.
“So many people came from Anchorage and Mat-Su, from all over the state. It’s not just our issue. When we first started it felt like it was our issue, that we needed to address it. But now people all over the state are starting to see if this goes in our area, it’ll go anywhere because there’s no law against mining in salmon streams,” Heilman said.
“People have been saying, ‘Well, hey, I’ll be there to help you,’ but you don’t know if they’ll show up. So we didn’t know when we got down there if there were going to be 30 people there or 10 people there. And then we find 150. I just think it’s wonderful that so many people from different walks of life were there. I mean, these weren’t just environmentalists that stood up and talked. There were teachers who teach biology and science. Fishermen — we’ve got the commercial fishermen now signing on to our fight, and set-netters are signing on to our fight,” she said.
The commenters were, indeed, a diverse group, with old-timers and youth leaders speaking, private citizens and representatives of various environmental organizations, sport fishermen, commercial fishermen and people who just like to eat salmon, scientists and laymen, Natives, rural residents and city dwellers. The comments were much more homogeneous, with many making similar arguments — that coal mining and coal usage is environmentally destructive; that the mine would financially benefit outside business interests more than Alaska and Alaskans; that the area proposed for mining is too sensitive and important as anadromous fish habitat to be worth the risks from coal mining; and skepticism that PacRim Coal could protect the area from irrevocable harm.
DNR has 60 days beyond the public meeting to issue a decision, though that deadline may be extended if another public hearing is scheduled and held in Tyonek.
Several people commented that Chuitna mine would set a new precedent — that surface coal mining could be allowed through salmon streams.
“If this is permitted it will go all over Alaska. It won’t just be in our backyard, it will be in every backyard in the whole damn state. We cannot permit this to go forward,” Heilman said in her testimony.
Sandwiched amid all the comments in favor of the petition, was one commenter speaking in support of the mine — Dan Graham, project manager for PacRim’s proposed Chuitna Coal project.
“And now I know what it’s like to be the most unpopular guy in the room,” Graham said as he began his testimony.
He sought to assure the audience that the concerns expressed by the Heilmans and others were being heard by PacRim.
“We agree with everyone in this room, we have no dispute, that proposed mine operations, especially when salmon are involved, deserve and require an added measure of scrutiny, particularly concerning impacts to fish. As proponents of the Chuitna project, we understand the need for that scrutiny. Our project is based on the premise that successful mine operations and a healthy fish population are not mutually exclusive. It’s not an either-or proposition. They can and must coexist, and if it can’t be shown that they can coexist, then we wouldn’t expect to get our permit approvals,” Graham said.
He pointed out PacRim’s argument, advanced in the intervener documents filed by PacRim, the Tyonek Native Corporation and the state Land Trust Office to oppose the Trustees for Alaska’s petition, that the state already has a process for vetting mining plans. The permitting process is the proper place for scrutinizing the specifics of the project and ensuring PacRim is able and committed to protecting and restoring the watershed, he said. From that perspective, commenting on what the specifics of the mine might be or opposing the mine itself were misplaced in a public hearing about the petition to exempt certain lands from mining.
“The regulatory process giving rise to the petition before us is not intended as a specific project review. It’s a land-use planning program that’s meant to look on a broader basis and consider whether coal mining should be excluded from the area in any manner, at any scale, for specific reasons set out in regulations. It should not be misapplied as a procedure for reviewing our project,” Graham said. “Public review on our project will properly occur at a future date when all the applications are submitted and passed preliminary review by the agencies. At that time the details of our project will be discussed and some of the myths can be dispelled on what we’re planning, and then we’ll welcome input on particulars of the project.”
In the meantime, Graham said PacRim would keep listening to the Heilmans, or anyone else wanting to express concerns on the issue.
“We will continue to work toward creating new economic opportunities to benefit the region while maintaining a healthy fish population and otherwise being environmental good citizens,” he said. “… As an Alaskan and the project manager, protection of state’s environment and resources, along with building a strong economy is paramount to me both personally and professionally. And in short, if we can’t do this project — to design it and operate it correctly — it won’t be done. At least not under my watch.”
The Heilmans had a proclamation of their own to share. Just as PacRim intends to continue into the permitting phase, no matter what DNR decides about the petition, the Heilmans plan to continue their opposition.
“(The hearing) meant that we finally get to be heard. And people will know. We had to be there. We had to tell our story to DNR and have it recorded,” Heilman said. “The ball is rolling. We don’t know how far it will roll, but by damn, people know, and we can bring that forward.”