The public comment period closed on Thursday on a water-rights petition from a citizen group fighting a proposed coal mine in the Chuitna watershed on the west side of Cook Inlet.
In 2009, the Chuitna Citizens Coalition filed a series of water-rights petitions to the Department of Natural Resources. They asked DNR to reserve water rights in a tributary of the Chuitna River called Middle Creek.
Judy Heilman helped start the coalition which comprises fishermen, some residents from the community of Beluga, and others. The group filed the petitions in response to a proposed coal strip mine in the watershed. Specifically, they are asking the water in Middle Creek to be saved for salmon.
“That’s the first mining LMU, logical mining unit, that they want to start and it’s 14 miles of salmon spawning stream and they want to mine down 300 feet deep,” says Heilman.
She says 15-20% of the silver salmon for the Chuitna River are spawned in Middle Creek. She and other opponents of the mine are concerned not only about the resource itself, but about fishermen and subsistence users who depend on it.
“It’s very important for Alaskans to be able to fish and fill their freezers with salmon. There’s never been a salmon stream that’s been restored that’s been destroyed like that,” says Heilman.
Bob Shavelson is the director of Cook Inletkeeper, which has partnered with the coalition.
“Well, the west side of Cook Inlet is still a very remote and spectacularly beautiful place and the Chuitna watershed is unique in that it supports all five species of wild pacific salmon,” says Shavelson. “Like everywhere around Cook Inlet, the Chinook fisheries have been getting hammered recently and nobody has a great understanding on that. But, the Chuitna River has been listed by the Department of Fish and Game as a fishery of concern for Chinook. That’s just another reason that we should protect it because if our king salmon are hanging on by a thread right now, we need to provide everything that we can in a changing climate to make sure they have the resilience to fight back.”
In 2013, PacRim Coal LLC filed for water rights for Middle Creek to divert the water from the stream and mine underneath. According to DNR’s Chuitna mine page, it’s part of a surface coal mining and export development proposal. It would be a 25-year project producing nearly 12 million tons of coal annually.
If it were constructed, the coalition says it would be the state’s largest coal strip mining operation.
Since the coalition and PacRim Coal have both filed for water rights, only one will emerge with the state’s approval.
“I think it’s important to recognize that Governor Walker came in and it was a refreshing openness that he brought and he put together a transition team,” says Shavelson. “The fisheries transition team unanimously came up with a recommendation for what they call a Fish First policy, and that is when we’re making management decisions around our natural resources, we should put fish first and I can’t think of a better example than Chuitna to implement that policy.”
According to DNR, PacRim Coal has made changes to their original mine proposal and has not yet submitted an updated draft. However they are aware of the Coalition’s instream flow reservation petition.
In an email response to a request for comment, PacRim’s Chuitna Coal Project Manager, Dan Graham, wrote quote “PacRim is currently reviewing the notice and applications on file and has no further comment at this time.”
Shavelson says the state’s decision in this case could have ramifications for other areas.
“Well it really would be a new policy in the state’s history because never before has a wild salmon stream been mined completely through,” says Shavelson. “Looking back over decisions about salmon habitat, I can’t think of a more important decision in the past 25 or more years for the management of our resource because if we trade salmon for coal here, if we sacrifice a vibrant salmon ecosystem for a one-time use, then we’re going to set a precedent that’s going to put salmon streams across the state at risk.”
Judy Heilman says she thinks this could be one step down that path.
“It’s very important for the next generations coming up. We can’t leave them polluted streams, no fish in the streams, polluted air. We can’t do that to the kids coming up and the next generation. We have to leave them better than what we have now.”