By Jenny Neyman
Opponents and supporters of the proposed Chuitna Mine on the west side of Cook Inlet both found something to oppose and support in a mixed decision issued Oct. 7 by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
DNR announced its ruling on applications for in-stream flow reservations on Middle Creek, a salmon-bearing tributary of the Chuitna River, filed by the Chuitna Citizens Coalition. Water reservations ensure that stream flows remain sufficient for fish habitat. DNR granted the coalition’s reservation application for the lower reach of the stream, outside the proposed mine’s boundaries, but denied the requests for the upper and middle sections, where Delaware-based PacRim proposes strip-mining for coal, most of which would be exported to Asia.
Representatives of PacRim and the landowner of the proposed mine site, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, expressed disappointment that DNR allowed any of the applications, and concern that a reservation was granted to private citizens. Water reservations in Alaska have only ever been granted to agencies before now.
In a statement issued in response to the decision, Dan Graham, project manager for PacRim Coal, said the company believes that “agencies, not private individuals, should be the proper entities to hold reservations of a public resource.”
Meanwhile, opponents of the proposed mine celebrated the precedent of the state granting a water reservation to private citizens. But Bob Shavelson, of Cook Inletkeeper, took DNR and Gov. Bill Walker’s administration to task for not approving all three applications.
“On the one hand, it’s the first time the state has ever recognized the rights of everyday Alaskans to keep water in salmon stream,” Shavelson said. “On the other hand, they did not embrace the whole notion of ‘fish first’ that the governor’s own transition team had recommended unanimously. And they denied the reservation of waters in the areas that will be mined by Pac Rim Coal.”
Shavelson contends that only granting the reservation in the lower reach of Middle Creek is shortsighted and doesn’t go far enough to protect the salmon stream.
“Anybody that understands the biology and the habitat of salmon recognizes you can’t piecemeal it. Everything is connected within a watershed,” he said. “So you can’t try to pretend that you can keep water in one part of the stream and take it out of the other part of the stream and not see the entire watershed and the habit it supports be affected.”
In adjudicating water reservation applications, if there are competing claims on a resource, DNR must determine the best use of the water for the greatest benefit of the state and its citizens. DNR found no competing interests in the lower reach of Middle Creek. For the other two applications in the proposed mine area, DNR representatives say the denial of the water reservations is not DNR determining mining to be the best use for that water. It’s just that the department can’t yet make that determination, said Brent Goodrum, director of the Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water, in a press release Wednesday.
Several Pac Rim permits are still under review, and the state must allow for a predictable and complete permitting process, the DNR press release states. Shavelson, though, doesn’t have much faith that the permitting process will protect the anadromous stream.
“The permitting process is called the permitting process because it issues permits. It’s not called the salmon habitat protection process,” Shavelson said.
The ruling may be appealed for 20 days to the commissioner of DNR, and from there, potentially, the matter can be taken to court. The Chuitna Citizens Coalition already had to seek court action to force DNR to issue a decision on the water reservation applications, which were submitted in 2009.
Coalition spokesman Ron Burnett stated in a press release that getting just the one water reservation took the group over six years and tens of thousands of dollars in research, expert and legal fees. Shavelson didn’t yet know if the Chuitna Citizens Coalition would file an appeal.
“It’s a fairly complicated decision, so we probably won’t know for a couple weeks now,” he said.
PacRim also stated it would continue to review the decision.