By Jenny Neyman
Anyone who would equate “public comment hearing” with “boring” might have left a Jan. 19 meeting in Kenai regarding the proposed Chuitna coal mine with a different opinion. The three-and-a-half-hour session at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, with more than 150 people attending and nearly 60 people testifying on a petition to designate portions of the Chuit River Watershed as unsuitable for surface coal mining operations, resembled, at times, “Judge Judy” more than C-SPAN, more performance piece than watching paint dry.
Interspersed with the facts and figures — scientific and economic data cited, examples related, talk of precedents to be set and harms that could result — were more colorful testimonies. People quoted from books and delivered their own carefully crafted speeches. They teared up, made jokes and lashed out. Some spoke in elaborate prose, while others dealt out off-the-cuff quips. They invoked God, family histories and cultural heritage. Some brought props. One sang a song.
Several took the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to task for what they perceive to be a lack of consideration given to the public’s wishes.
“DNR, you’ve got to listen to what we’re telling you. I don’t eat coal, I eat salmon. Our elected officials don’t listen to us anymore. We’re tired of this stuff with outside interest groups coming up here destroying our wildlife and our habitat. If everybody in this room would call the governor and (Alaska DNR) Commissioner (Dan) Sullivan, that’s more people who’s going to get noticed,” said George Pierce, of Kasilof. “It’s too bad that these people have to take time out to address this ridiculous matter. It’s sad it’s gone this far.”
While the vehemence, emotion, diction and drama added to the interest of the evening, it likely did not achieve the presenters’ aim — to sway the DNR decision on the petition. It’s not that the speakers weren’t welcome to talk, or that their comments weren’t heard and recorded — they just weren’t all saying what DNR is directed to consider.
“We’re looking for all comments. People need to be able to speak what’s concerning them. But what would really help is information that is directly related to what is being decided upon,” said Russell Kirkham, project manager for the Alaska Coal Regulatory Program, under DNR’s Division of Mining Land and Water. Continue reading