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Friday, January 28, 2022

Chuitna Coal – Dollars and Sense

It’s time for a little Mudflats Theatre. But this time, you get to participate in the drama! It’s kind of like an improvisation. Let’s pretend we’re doing a business deal. We sit down in a conference room overlooking majestic Cook Inlet, which borders the city of Anchorage. You arrive, we shake hands, and close the door. You’re on one side of the table, and I’m on the other. We lock eyes for a moment, and then mine dart down to a yellow legal pad in front of me, upon which numbers have been scrawled. I look back up at you and I tap the end of my pen on the table. You notice on the floor by my chair, a little pile of crumpled, wadded up yellow papers which you presume came from the very pad which is now on the table.

“I’ve got a deal for you,” I say. “And I think it’s a heck of a deal. One of those deals that we’ll be able to seal with a handshake this very day.”

You raise one eyebrow in that way that you do, and return my gaze. “Really,” you say, sounding more like a statement of fact than a question. “Let’s hear it.”

I give you one of those “let’s do business” smiles, and reach into my pocket.  I pull out two objects, and lay them one after the other on the tabletop – a crisp green one dollar bill, and a small black lump of coal.

“All this can be yours, my friend,” I say, with a flourish of the hand, “This here brand new George Washington, and this attractive and only slightly substandard piece of coal for the low, low price of six dollars and a salmon dinner.”

I flash you a winning grin, and thrust my hand across the table as if to shake, and seal the deal on the spot.

Now the end of this story can go one of two ways. The first way is that you inquire what kind of medication(s) I may currently be taking.  The second way is that you grab my hand, and pump a good handshake, and we’ve got ourselves a deal.

You’ll be pleased to know that I credit you with more smarts than to take the deal. Governor Sean Parnell? Not so much. Yes, that’s who you were playing in our little drama. And no, I wasn’t Monty Hall. I was playing PacRim Coal.

You see, a new analysis of the potential economic costs and benefits of the Chuitna Coal Strip Mine in Upper Cook Inlet (which we can see right from our Anchorage conference room) found that the economic and environmental damages to fisheries, ecosystems, air quality, climate and water quality could be over six times greater than the economic benefits that may flow from the sale of coal to Asian markets. That’s why you get one dollar and a lump of coal, but you have to pay six times that amount, and I walk away with your salmon.

Sean Parnell has repeatedly said that he “would never trade one resource for another.” This makes it pretty clear that if he does decide to trade, it’s still a pretty raw deal.

The report “Net Public Benefits of the Chuitna Coal Project – A Preliminary Analysis,” was prepared by the Center for Sustainable Economy, a non-profit consulting firm with a strong background in Alaska energy and mining issues. You can read the report yourself HERE.

“It’s a no-brainer. Everyone knows coal is dirty and that strip mining will destroy Alaska salmon streams,” said Bob Shavelson, Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper, the organization that commissioned the report. “We now know this mine will also strip away billions of dollars of value from Alaskans.  Governor Parnell has said repeatedly he will not trade one resource for another, and now we’re giving him strong economic grounds to reject the project and honor Alaskans’ demands to protect wild salmon habitat.”

The Chuitna Coal Strip Mine would be located near the communities of Tyonek and Beluga on the West side of Cook Inlet, 45 miles west of Anchorage.  It would be the largest coal strip mine in Alaska and has ignited a firestorm of controversy because it would be the first project in state history to completely mine through productive, thriving salmon streams and unquestionably destroy salmon spawning and rearing habitat, wetlands and subsistence resources in Cook Inlet. This would be a dangerous precedent for sure.

“Federal and state law require decision makers to assign a price tag to the project’s toll on fish, wildlife, clean water, clean air, climate and subsistence using best available methods and sources of information,” says Dr. John Talberth, the report’s primary author.  “Our preliminary analysis shows that these costs could be three to six times higher than any benefits the project generates. As such, it is unlikely the Chuitna Coal Project can fulfill the Alaska Constitution’s mandate to manage the state’s natural resources ‘for the maximum benefit of its people.”

The report gives Governor Parnell ample grounds to respond to a petition filed to protect salmon habitat from coal strip mining.  In January 2010, Cook Inletkeeper and local property owners, hunters and fishermen with the Chuitna Citizen Coalition filed a petition with the State to set aside the Chuit River, its tributaries and riparian areas as unsuitable for coal strip mining. You may remember my posts about that, which you can read HERE and HERE. The law requires the state to deem areas “unsuitable” for coal mining if they cannot be restored to their pre-mining functions and values after the mining is complete.  Because the Chuitna project would be the first project in state history to mine completely through 11 miles of wild, Alaska salmon stream, and because restoring an entire stream has never been done before, the petitioners sought to remove all salmon streams from the Chuitna mine plan. Seemed reasonable, and now in light of this report even more so. The law required Governor Parnell and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to respond to the petition by April 19, 2011. To date, the Governor and DNR continue to violate the law by failing to render a decision on the petition.

“It sends the wrong message to Alaskans when our Governor and his Administration openly break the law,” said Cook Inletkeeper’s Shavelson. “This report gives Governor Parnell clear-cut data to honor his word and stand by his repeated promises to Alaskans to “never trade one resource for another.”



21 Responses to “Chuitna Coal – Dollars and Sense”
  1. Inletkeeper says:

    Thanks Muckie! Weird, the silence from the Governor. We had thought that famous moral compass would guide him to respond to thousands of Alaskans asking him not to mine through salmon habitat.

  2. EatWildFish says:

    There is very little about the Chuitna project on the state DNR web site – and the one page on the Chuitna unsuitable lands petition has not been updated since January. A Google search will bring up a lot more information than the state of Alaska is providing.

  3. Ndjinn says:

    Dang, this isn’t “open for business” this is not business at all. I think I’ll start a corporation. Start one of these $1:$6 project then just ask for $2 per dirty unit to not mine it and offer a big donation. (just kidding). I came over here as I thought this was more about the Sutton mine, that’s also a really bad idea. I have friends in Tyonek, I am going to dg some on my own. I know they value their salon quite a bit.

  4. Ben in SF says:


  5. leenie17 says:

    “To date, the Governor and DNR continue to violate the law by failing to render a decision on the petition.”

    Color me shocked.

  6. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    Sorry to say I don’t have time to address a 75 page pdf at the moment but just skimming through it looks like the report does a pretty thorough job of addressing the known benefits of the existing watershed’s uses. Just for comparison I went looking around for the original and revised mine plans and could not find an original easily (dating from 2006) but readily found a recent revision here:

    That’s in google cache in case the original goes away. The original link (with figures included) is at the top of the cached page.

    Going back to one of my earlier questions about this project I don’t see it addressed in either the original mine plan’s revisions nor in the ad hoc report that is the subject of this post, namely the effect of dewatering on the ground water system and the potential for the invasion of sea-water into the water table. I can’t assess the potential for this because I simply don’t have the time to do so but I am suggesting that some parties more directly connected to the local interests should be able to look into a)whether the mine plan would likely result in potential water table contamination from the sea and b) whether anything in the mine plan is designed to prevent such a problem.

    One thing I noticed from skimming through the revised plans is that reference is made to various restoration and reclaimation strategies and claims are made about their having been used in other locations, but I see no specific references. On what scale were these strategies employed in the past? Were any of the examples supposedly citable really comparable to Chuitna?

    One other observation that is a bit pedantic but I think important. The revising mine plan refers to a surface horizon that occurs within the mine are of “glacial drift” up to 100′ thick. Subsequently this is referred to as “gravel”. This raises an interesting but esoteric point. Glacial drift is a deprecated term invented in the early 20th century superceeded by glacial till or just plain till, which is more descriptive but has a clear definition. Simply put, glacial till does not equal gravel. One wonders what other mis-statements occur within these revised and original plans that are subtley converted from ‘problems’ to non-issues.

    One wishes for a thorough chemical analysis of the composition of the coal to be mined. I am sure that the samples needed for such analysis are available, have they been analyzed? What are the levels of mercury, chrome, arsenic, selenium, thorium, potassium, urainium, and so on that will be part of the particulate plume? What is the spectrum of particulates generated by the crushing methods in the mine plan? If watering is proposed to prevent aerosol sized particulates from escaping the mine, what mitigation is planned to remove these contaminants from the used water?

    These are just some thoughts I put forward for those with similar understanding as take off points from which to examine the credibility of technical aspects of the mine plan. There are other areas of interest that deserve some scrutiny. What is the environmental track record of the mining company making this proposal? Have they ever defaulted on a reclaimation plan?

    To close on a lighter note, someone sent me an image of a sign seen at OWS….

    Ten years ago we had
    Steve Jobs
    Bob Hope and
    Johnny Cash

    Now we have
    No Jobs
    No Hope and
    No Cash

    • Zyxomma says:

      Krubozumo Nyankoye, I was hoping that you’d weigh in on this, because unlike us amateurs, you’re a professional geologist, and your viewpoint is important. My initial horror when I first read about this proposed mine (here at The Mudflats, years ago) was related to its destruction of salmon habitat (no way do I believe that the habitat can or will be “restored”), and that this destruction would take place to mine sub-lignite coal, which IMO should just be left in the ground, and never mined.

      As to what we can do, there are environmental organizations in Alaska, the US, and worldwide. One can sign up for action alerts (they will, of course, ask for donations, but your signature via the internet is all you ever need give). A good place to start, for this particular issue, is and there are many more. Health and peace.

  7. ks sunflower says:

    Our daughter, as many of you already know, is again spending a year in China. I wish everyone supporting coal mining could visit Beijing where the coal dust and pollution – even after having been “cleaned-up” for the Olympics, is so bad that people there can barely make out where the sun is on any given day, when nasal discharge is black, where everyone wakes up sniffling or coughing or worse. I worry every single day as to the impact her stay there will affect her health, both short- and long-term. She is trying to stay inside as much as possible (she is a scholar studying early Chinese history) because the air quality is so bad.

    Depending upon coal is disastrous whether burning it or mining it. People and the land that supports them die slow and ugly deaths. Miners go first, wildlife next and the environment and other people last. The wealthy simply ignore the ugly visuals, install water and air filters or get the hell out of the area while filling their bank accounts from the profits of having invested or supported the mining and burning of coal.

    Politicians who promote and implement pro-coal policies are human beings who lack insight and long-term vision. They seem only intent upon their next election cycle. They probably feel the long-term trade-off worth the consequences. Voters need to realize these politicians are as self-absorbed as Sarah Palin was and still is. They simply do a better job of playing it down or hiding it.

    They talk jobs even though they should know that the jobs will end as the communities wither and die. They don’t think about or at least don’t talk about the families members of the workers and how their health will eventually suffer. They don’t relate to those who rely upon the land and the water, or those who rely upon the tourism that pure air, clean water and healthy habitats can draw to make the state flourish in a positive way.

    Those politicians lack humanity. They have sold their souls to the short-term profit, common-sense be damned ideology. May whatever God or gods you believe in have mercy on their souls (if they have any).

    How long does it take for the average person to realize this is bad – after they lose the beauty and wildlife that they went to Alaska to appreciate, or do they wait until they start losing their health or the health of those they hold most dear. How long?

    When do the independent spirits who proudly call themselves Alaskan start to protect themselves and the land they claim to love? We know that those who come here do the right thing, fight the good fight, but when are the rest going to wake up and stand up for their real freedom – that of a life in clean air, clear water and healthy wildlife and people? When, if not now? There will be no do-overs. This is for keeps.

    • weaver57 says:

      ks sunflower – how do we get this out? How do we get people to respond? I live in Kentucky, home of mountain removal. People here, who live in these areas, are so against it. Yet, the people elected are for land destruction. I don’t get it. Any ideas would be helpful. Our senators are useless.

      • Alaska Pi says:
        There is a lot of information here and links to law which governs mountain top mining.

        The loss of jobs associated with mountaintop mining should be shoved in your state and local politicos’ faces. The general employment picture in rural KY is bad but your cities get to ignore that and pretend it’s not their problem – how do you change that?

        It’s probably time we all looked more carefully at the exemptions and all that mining gets in general but it particularly disturbs me that the there is an assumption that nothing bad will happen to endangered species and theor habitat if mining companies adhere to federal law. Pffft. Pffft. PFFFFTTTT.

        Keep your eye on the so-called Clean Water Protection Act:

        A BILL
        To amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify that fill material cannot be comprised of waste.

        Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


        This Act may be cited as the `Clean Water Protection Act’.


        Section 502 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1362) is amended by adding at the end the following:

        `(26) FILL MATERIAL- The term `fill material’ means any pollutant which replaces portions of the waters of the United States with dry land or which changes the bottom elevation of a water body for any purpose. The term does not include any pollutant discharged into the water primarily to dispose of waste.’.

    • Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

      KS sunflower – comments that pass on the intertubes. I greatly admire your point of view and the arguments you touch upon. But I regret to say that you are far too mild and conciliating with respect to the mentalities of the plutocrats. The first and foremost thing you have to accept is that they simply do not care. Secondly, this attitude trickles down into the sandbox which they frolic in. Politicians envy the vast wealth of the plutocrats, so they can buy them wholesale, a gross for a pittance.

      To put it in perspective, the Kock brothers together are worth something like $50 billion. So they decide that 2% of their net worth is a reasonable investment in politicians of all stripes. So they have a billion dollars to throw around. If they bought 1,000 politicians for a million apiece that would use up their funds. Of course we all know that it takes far less than $1 million to buy a politician. At the state legislature level a few thousand is enough. Governors cost about a quarter of a million, maybe. Congress members go for between $100k and $500k, senators a bit more but they too are craven and realistically, cheap because they have a much wider constituency. So a single plutocratic center has a wide and in depth influence, and there are hundreds of them.

      There appears to be some diversity of opinion and awareness among them, but it is slight and we cannot depend upon it. However, they stand on our shoulders. It is within out power to throw them off.

  8. Riverwoman says:

    I have absolutely no faith that this governor will do the right thing. Seems he is in competition with SP for the title “Worst Governor Ever”.

  9. Alaska Pi says:

    Thank you AKM.
    Off to read the report.
    ADT projects like this got looked at for costs to everything around them in relation to their supposed benefit.
    Have no faith Cap’n Torpedo/Zero/Britches-burning and his merry band of Permitters will unclamp their coaly paws from their ears and stop la-la-la-lying long enough to hear any of this but glad it’s out here. Thank you again for the info.

    • Zyxomma says:

      Alaska Pi, love love love la-la-la-lying!

      I clicked the HERE button to read the report. I could have stopped here: “The project’s footprint will impact 1,830 acres of wetlands that provide valuable ecosystem services such as water filtration and flood mitigation. Recreational uses that include hunting, sport fishing, trapping, snow machining, berry picking, camping and hiking will be displaced.”

      There’s much, much more.

  10. Blooper says:

    I knew this is what we would get when Captain Zero was reelected… sigh. But thanks for this post, AKM.
    Lots of heretofore unknown knowledge (to me at least). And knowledge is power. 🙂

    • Blooper says:

      P.S. If the Chuitna Coal Mine gets pushed through (God forbid), this forecast for the greater Anchorage area (my home) may not be unforeesable:

      Cloudy with a chance of coaldust. 🙁

  11. mikefromiowa says:

    I was kinda hoping Parnell was gonna ask for massive taxcuts for the wealthy to prove his street cred with conservatives. Bummer.