By Joseph Robertia
Members of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee heard from representatives of PacRim Coal on Thursday with an update of their plans to develop a coal mine at Chuitna, across Cook Inlet, roughly 12 miles northwest of the village of Tyonek.
Much of the presentation focused on the benefits of the mine, should all permitting applications withstand public and related agencies’ reviews. But, knowing their target audience, PacRim’s update also focused heavily on the effects the mine would have on the surrounding watershed and the fish and game species living there.
“The Chuitna coal project is not a choice between a coal mine or fish,” said Dan Graham, Chuitna project manager since 2009. “It is designed for both.”
Graham began the presentation by explaining one of the changes to the original mining plan, which was amended to reduce the impact of development in the area. Rather than creating a long road through the wilderness area around land owned by the Tyonek Native Corporation, PacRim entered into an easement agreement with them to transport the coal directly from the mine to the port facilities at Ladd Landing in Cook Inlet.
“Under the easement agreement, we’ll install an elevated coal conveyor system to transport the coal,” Graham said. “The unique design of this conveyor system will significantly reduce the environmental impact of the project infrastructure.”
The conveyor system will feature a belt, roughly 5 feet wide and 80 to 100 feet high, that runs between towers located 1,400 feet apart. This will eliminate coal transfer points between the mine and port, reduce stream crossings from seven to one, and will reduce the length of the proposed new road construction from 12 miles to six, he said.
“The elevated conveyor system will also serve as a power line between the mine and port site,” Graham said, which, he added, will reduce construction in the area of freestanding, high-voltage lines that would have run along the proposed 12-mile road of the former plan.
There is a caveat, though. Currently the longest elevated conveyor system used for mining in existence is only four miles in length, which is much less than what PacRim is proposing for Chuitna. Graham said there are several bids in by other companies around the world using this technology, which will move materials much farther than four miles when they’re completed.
“We’ll be tracking those closely,” he said.
In terms of how the mine would affect wildlife, either through dust from coal transportation or as a result of the mine excavation process itself, Graham said the impact would be minimal.
The coal, according to Graham, will be crushed to roughly fist-sized pieces for handling and loading on the conveyors. Crushing will take place within an enclosed structure with dust control equipment, and the coal can be wet, if necessary, to reduce dust.
“The coal from this project does not require processing,” he said. “So, for us, there’s no mill or tailings pond, either.”
The depth of the coal is predicted to be between 20 and 350 feet deep, but Graham said it makes
up less than a quarter of the substrate of the area, which will minimize the drop in landscape elevation and aid the reclamation process.
“The coal accounts for less than 20 percent of the volume, so most of what we’re moving is dirt,” he said.
Backfill procedures, according to Graham, will include placing finer materials and clays first, followed by gravels and topsoil, in an effort to create a layer capable of supporting near-surface groundwater flows and streams.
“Also, a good portion of the revegetation associated with the reclamation is willow,” he said, referring to the preferred feed foliage of moose.
In terms of how the mine may affect fish populations, Graham said PacRim has had three fish-monitoring stations operating for three successive summers, in Alaska Department of Fish and Game-designated Stream 2003, Stream 2004 and in the Chuit River above the Tyonek Bridge.
Results show both steams are coho salmon resources, while king salmon stay predominantly in the river. There are also resident populations of Dolly Varden in these waterways. The portions of Stream 2003 within the mine area provides roughly 13 acres of predominantly rearing habitat, while coho spawning occurs within the lowest 1.5-mile stretch in the proposed mine area, according to Graham.
“Equivalent spawning and rearing habitat will be constructed below the mine area to maintain coho smolt production during mining operations,” he said. “This new habitat will be left after mining, and in combination with the reconstructed stream within the mine area, there will be more spawning and rearing habitat after mining than there was before mining.”
Not everyone is as confident in PacRim as they are in themselves. Bob Shavelson, director of advocacy for Cook InletKeeper, who attended the advisory committee meeting, said later that the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine is a precedent-setting threat to wild Alaska salmon streams.
“We continue to think that PacRim is trying to sell a bill of goods by saying they can protect salmon and build a large-scale coal strip mine,” he said.
From the elevated conveyor system, to the creating of a safe, year-round docking facility, to being able to re-create salmon spawning streams and estuary habitat, Shavelson said it is all theoretical on PacRim’s part.
“It’s all pie-in-the-sky stuff. Each of these components have been done, but not put together or to the extent they are saying they can pull off. It’s a grand experiment on their part to think they can rebuild the environment on this scale. No one’s ever done this before and no one thinks it can be done,” he said.
The possible destruction of 11 miles of salmon stream and associated spawning area is one of Shavelson’s key concerns. While the mine is predicted to have a 25-year life, should salmon be lost, that would amount to hundreds, if not thousands, of years of a renewable resource compromised. And rather than being exported, like the coal would be, salmon are important to the local and state economy.
“They’re going to take this coal and ship it to China. They’ve already said that. Do we trade Alaskan salmon to make China’s economy stronger? No. And while they’ll tell you this coal is cleaner than most, the BTU is also lower, which means they’ll have to burn four times as much. So when people hear about mercury getting into their salmon, it’s coming from these coal-fired plants in China and Asia that they’re selling it to,” he said.
Shavelson said the bottom line is that PacRim is made up of businessmen, and if they could realistically carry out the environmental restoration they are claiming, they would have switched industries a long time ago.
“PacRim has not provided a single example of strip-mined wild salmon spawning and rearing habitat that has been restored to pre-mining productivity,” he said. “If they could do that, build new salmon streams, they could make a heck of a lot more money doing that than exporting coal.”