By Carey Restino
A recent petition to make certain lands in the Chuitna watershed a mine-free zone was rejected by the Department of Natural Resources on July 26, with the state agency citing a lack of evidence supporting the claim that reclamation of salmon streams is impossible.
Ed Fogels, the department’s Deputy Commissioner, said a high stack of papers on stream reclamation sits on his desk on the technical aspects of stream restoration. It’s a whole science these days, he said.
“This is not just some bulldozer operator cutting a V-notch in a pile of dirt,” Fogels said, adding that while the expectation isn’t that restoration will return streams to 100 percent of its former state, the technology is there now to restore streams and wetlands to a functional state.
But those opposed to the Chuitna Coal Project, a surface mine proposed near Tyonek on the west side of the Cook Inlet that includes the removal of 11 miles of streambed where salmon have been documented, say it’s impossible to reclaim a stream and protect the salmon that use it after mining.
They cite testimony from Margaret Palmer, director of the National Science Foundation’s Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, who testified before an Alaska Senate committee that the impacts on the salmon stream will be irreversible and that large-scale failure at Chuitna is inevitable under the proposed plan. The state’s current administration is putting mining and development ahead of salmon fishermen by not protecting the Chuitna River and its tributaries, they say.
“This is a horrible precedent for Alaska wild salmon and the countless families they support. PacRim Coal’s mining plans would remove miles and miles of wild Alaska salmon streams to a depth of over 300 feet,” said Judy Heilman, president of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, in a release.
“The Alaska Department of Fish and Game calls the tributaries PacRim would remove as important to salmon, yet the state refuses to formally protect our wild salmon streams,” Heilman said.
The back and forth between citizens groups opposed to the Chuitna Coal Project, which include the coalition and Cook InletKeeper, has been going on for several years, since PacRim Coal started the process of applying for permits for the mine. The state is currently working with PacRim Coal on its environmental impact statement, which is expected to take another year before state agencies get a chance to comment, Fogels said.
Bob Shavelson, with Cook InletKeeper, said Gov. Sean Parnell is sending mixed messages when he wrote last week to Wal-Mart objecting to its pulling of Alaska salmon off its store shelves, while refusing to guarantee commercial fishermen the certainty they need that the state will do everything it can to protect salmon resources.
“We’re not saying, ‘Don’t mine,’” Shavelson said. “We’re saying, ‘Don’t mine in a salmon stream.’”
Fogels said the state is also taking a wait-and-see attitude with regard to the Chuitna Coal Project. Many state agencies have to review the proposal before any activity will be approved by the state, including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which regulates virtually any activity in streams known to contain salmon.
Fogels said the state will review what, if any, loss is expected to take place as a result of the mining activity, and will weigh that loss against the potential gain to the state and its people.
“There’s no way you can do a mine and put the land back exactly the way it was,” Fogels said. “The creek will be different. But the technology is there to do a really good job with reclamation. Whether you can restore enough of its productivity — that is a decision the state will have to make.”
The petition filed by the coalition sought to put protective buffers around the Chuitna River and it tributaries under the Alaska Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act, buffers similar to those used in forestry operations, the coalition said.
“It’s a sad day when Governor Parnell’s policies protect a Delaware corporation’s profits over our wild Cook Inlet salmon runs and the Alaskan families salmon support,” said Terry Jorgensen, a Cook Inlet commercial fisherman and founding member of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, in a statement.
“DNR’s rejection clearly illustrates the state’s failure to protect our wild salmon runs. The governor must understand the importance of salmon to Alaskans, yet his policies are leading us down the same path that led to the demise of salmon runs around the world,” Jorgensen said.
Fogels said the state feels it is important to move forward with the Chuitna Coal Project’s environmental impact statement, in part to review the very risks that those opposed to the project are bringing up. Only after the statement is completed can the risks be properly evaluated, he said.
“Commissioner Sullivan is not prepared to preemptively shut this down,” he said, adding that with all the examples of successful reclamation river projects on record, it would be difficult to meet the burden of proof required to say with certainty that this project would impact the river in the way the petition claims. “We feel this is pretty straightforward.”
Shavelson, however, said the Chuitna Coal Project is not only a bad idea, it sets an even worse precedent in a state where salmon are so important to the economy.
The state has never denied a permit for a large mine or oil project, he said, and with the Pebble Prospect on the horizon — a large-scale copper, molybdenum and gold mine proposed near Lake Illiamna that is highly controversial with Bristol Bay fishermen — the state’s position on Chuitna is cause for concern.
“The Parnell administration has a biased look at the landscape and favors oil and gas over fishing,” Shavelson said. “Supporting our fishing industry is important because it is not only a vital part of our economy, it’s part of our cultural identity.”
Fogels said that, while he knows of no examples of mining operations that have disturbed this much salmon habitat being considered by the state before, the state maintains its stance that the analysis of the project should continue.
“We want to know what is the risk of what is being proposed — what do we stand to lose here,” he said. “Frankly, we are not sure.”