A decision announced Oct. 7 by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources grants limited fish and wildlife protections to a tributary to the Chuitna River critical for salmon habitat, sought to stop the progress of a proposed coal mine.
David Schade, chief of DNR’s water resources section, said his decision grants one of three reservations of water applications to the Chuitna Citizens Coalition in the lower reach of Middle Creek/Stream 2003, but not for applications for the main reach and the middle reach of Middle Creek/Stream 2002.
The proposal from Delaware-based PacRim Coal would mine through nearly 14 miles of critical salmon habitat. PacRim, meanwhile, has not submitted permit applications yet, and the Usibelli Coal Mine, the state’s only operating coal mine, recently announced its decision to halt exports, citing an oversupply of coal globally as well as low prices. The Chuitna Citizens Coalition, with support from commercial fishermen, environmentalists and others, had sought three water reservations because PacRim Coal wants to build a large coal strip mine which would directly impact several miles of salmon streams.
The coalition responded quickly to DNR’s decision to grant only one reservation for water. The coalition noted that the two water reservations not granted lie within the boundaries of PacRim Coal’s controversial proposal to strip mine through nearly 14 miles of salmon stream, while the approved application covers a stretch of water just downstream from the proposed mine.
“Make no mistake,” said coalition spokesman Ron Burnett, “DNR is saying that a potential coal strip mine is more valuable to the public than protecting wild salmon habitat. ”
Schade said he found two arguments regarding the reservation of water applications to be compelling. Shade said the coalition made a compelling argument that DNR should not allow PacRim to develop a coal mine that would significantly and negatively impact the Chuitna River watershed. Second, said Schade, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and others made a compelling argument that the state and federal permitting processes must allow for a predictable and complete permitting process that allows all available information to be presented to state and federal regulatory agencies.
Schade said his agency would analyze the entire Chuitna watershed and the consequences and protections of the different proposed uses. He said the review would occur after other mine-related permitting is complete and the best information is available for all the Chuitna water right applications.
By issuing the decision, DNR complied with an Alaska Superior Court order to issue a decision on the water reservation, but the decision may be appealed to DNR within 20 days, he said.