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Governor Sean Parnell Supports Destruction of Thriving Salmon Habitat for Coal

Mudflats readers will remember coverage over the last year of the issue of the “Unsuitable Lands Petition” that Cook Inletkeeper and the Chuitna Citizens Coalition submitted to the state. Basically, what this petition did was to put forth the idea that certain areas are just plain unsuitable for coal strip mining – specifically the areas directly on either side of the Chuit River (above), and its tributaries that were deemed “important salmon habitat” for Cook Inlet. The petition, if successful, would ensure that a narrow ribbon of land – 50 feet on either side of tributaries, and 100 feet on either side of the main river would escape being completely dug up and mined for coal if the Chuitna Coal strip mine were to be permitted.

It’s not asking a lot. It’s similar to what they require in areas where logging occurs, because destroying river banks, particularly those of waterways that are teeming with large numbers of salmon, is a bad idea if you are trying to save that resource. The petition said nothing about halting the mine itself, only about saving these precious little pieces of land on either side of a river that is home to large numbers of all five species of Pacific salmon. PacRim coal, naturally, would prefer to just bulldoze right through the river and its tributaries, mine it to 350 feet below the surface and call it a day. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a heck of a lot easier. You don’t have to take into account all those annoying fish, and people.

And so the process began. The petition was submitted, and public testimony was heard in Kenai. I wrote an article on the hearing, and the Associated Press reported that supporters of the petition outnumbered opponents by a count of 150 to 2.  More public testimony was heard in Tyonek (the small Native village on the south side of the river), where 98% of villagers oppose the mine.

“What am I going to eat? I can’t eat money, I can’t eat coal. I eat moose meat. I eat fish. I live off this land. My grandfather showed me how to do that… He passed it down through generations. How to take care of this land, and what to do about it. I knew him, and what he said. … I lived off that land, I lived off that fish. I drank that water. I didn’t go over there and buy it from California. I went over there and I chopped that water hole, I drank that water, and I packed that water…for my Grandma. That water came from that river right there, and it still comes from there. And you’re going to pollute it!”

Alaskans submitted over 1200 letters and cards to Governor Sean Parnell in support of the unsuitable lands designation.  Various groups, including the United Fishermen of Alaska, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and others also opposed the project and the dangerous precedent it would set.

Then, we waited. The state took its sweet time. Apparently, it took a while to come up with a 109 page rationale for why it’s totally fine, for the first time in Alaska history, to mine through a productive wild salmon stream where hundreds of thousands of fish in various stages of development live at a given time. But that’s what they did.

Russell Kirkham from the Department of Natural Resources issued a statement. He was there for the public testimony too. He heard the outcry. He knew that the ONLY people to testify against the petition were those who worked for the mining project. Everyone else said no – Hell, no. The state heard from recreational fishermen, residents of Beluga and Tyonek, commercial fishermen, Native elders, teachers, pilots, and most importantly scientists. They explained in great detail how you cannot just destroy a river, the soils underneath, the fragile ecosystem on the banks, and every living thing in it, and then hope that 25 years later you can move a bunch of fill back there, and carve out something that looks and acts  like the river you destroyed two and half decades earlier. Well, you can do that, but you won’t have anything resembling what you had  in terms of biodiversity, wild salmon, and everything needed to support the delicate chemistry required to make a river thrive. You will, however, end up with a nice trench.

Then Russell Kirkham stood and thanked everyone so much for turning out. Sincerely. He thanked them for their testimony, and said that the state would really consider it. Really they would. He’d keep everyone posted. And thanks again.

~Russell Kirkham, the Project Manager for the Alaska Coal Regulatory Program, and Rick Fredrickson, Mine Chief for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

~Brandy Standifer gives impassioned testimony to Russel Kirkham of the DNR at the public hearing in the Village of Tyonek.

Opponents of the mine had no illusions about this one. The Parnell administration had already made up its mind, and it was just a question of creating facts to support the decision they had made before they ever heard the first piece of public testimony. But the tragedy here goes beyond the Chuitna coal mine itself. Mining through Middle Creek and digging up eleven miles of it will set a dangerous precedent for many other places. This has never been done before in the state of Alaska. They’ve never annihilated a salmon population, or bulldozed through a river, but now they’ve told us that it’s OK to do it. They tell us not to worry our pretty little heads about it, and that in two and a half decades it’ll be juuuust fine.

Alaskans need to ask themselves this – If this mine goes through, and destroys this river, the fish in it, the homes and communities around it, and the way of life of the residents, and dumps 7 million gallons a day of mine waste into Cook Inlet, and if it does so literally within sight of Alaska’s biggest city, what will they NOT do? Where will they NOT mine? What fisheries are safe? Alaska’s coal mining law allows citizens to petition to have certain lands designated as unsuitable for surface coal mining if the mined lands cannot be returned to their pre-mining functions and values.  If actual productive salmon rivers don’t qualify under this law as “unsuitable land” for coal mining, then what does?

Yes, it’s a rhetorical question.

And it’s interesting how the decision was framed by the DNR. Commissioner Dan Sullivan (no relation to Mayor Dan Sullivan) said in the official announcement,“Today’s decision is not a green light for specific mining projects in the Chuitna watershed. What we did today is reject the petitioners’ request to ban all surface coal mining on these lands.”   I added the emphasis to show how the state is making it sound like something it was not.  The petition would NOT, as Sullivan claims, have prevented coal mining in the area, only in the narrow buffer zone at river’s edge. But don’t confuse the state with accuracy or facts.

“Governor Parnell should be ashamed of himself,” said Judy Heilman, President of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, and one of the residents of Beluga I visited during my trips there.  “We trusted the Governor when he said his administration would never trade one resource for another.  But now it’s clear.  The Governor is willing to trade our salmon and fishing jobs in exchange for coal to power China.”

~Judy Heilman at her home in Beluga, Alaska

“Governor Parnell always criticizes the federal government and says Alaska can manage its resources responsibly,” said Heilman.  “But mining through a wild Alaska salmon stream is not responsible development, and it will set a horrible precedent throughout the state.”

Various expert reports have argued PacRim Coal cannot simply bring in earth movers and re-create the complexities of a wild Alaska salmon stream once it’s been mined. And for those concerned with the bottom line, a recent report addressed those issues too.

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.

“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.”

Petitioners are currently reviewing DNR’s decision, and will provide a more detailed response in the near future. In the meantime, we now know the meaning of the Governor’s word when he said he would never trade one resource for another. He won’t do it, unless of course it’s trading salmon for coal.






29 Responses to “Governor Sean Parnell Supports Destruction of Thriving Salmon Habitat for Coal”
  1. Could appeal to rwnj sensitivities and have them adopt billions of salmon embryos and fetuses and nurture them until the mine is shutdown.How does fifty year old salmon taste and does it get more flavorful with age?

  2. Zyxomma says:

    “Alaskans submitted over 1200 letters and cards to Governor Sean Parnell in support of the unsuitable lands designation.”

    Many of us from Outside petitioned Private Zero (I refuse to call him Captain, and Private seems more suitable, since all he cares about is private industry rather than the public good) as well.

    • AKMuckraker says:

      Thank you! There are so many issues – many including threatened fisheries – that we need outside support to win. There are only 700,000 Alaskans in a very very big state. It’s easy for corporate influence to have its way, as we’ve seen before. The participation and engagement of the community of non-Alaskan Mudflatters (in addition to the locals) is incredibly appreciated.

  3. slipstream says:

    Ironic that today in Washington state, an old dam was removed . . . because they finally figured out that salmon habitat was more important/

  4. LoveMyDogs says:

    “We don’t need no stinking fish” say the corporate bast*rds and their elected (bought and paid for) flunkeys. I have one question for them (aside from the pollution and general bad idea of coal that is being sold out of country where it can come back and pollute us again, etc, etc, etc)….Just where, exactly, are the generations of fish that return to the Chuitna to spawn supposed to go for lo those 25 years??? Are they supposed to just hang out in the inlet and wait for Parnell and Sullivan (AG) and their croneys to get done raping Mother Earth?

    And the people of Beluga and Tyonek are supposed to do what? Sell their homes for a penny on the dollar to the corporation to use as offices?

    And those of us on the other side of the inlet who fish for our food are miraculously not going to be impacted by all the crap going into the air and water?

    Hmmmm. I suppose all of the people who vote for whomever has the R behind their name every gosh darn election, without fail, will only start wailing when their teeth and fingernails start turning black and they can’t come down here to subsistence fish anymore because the fish are all belly up and “goin’ downstream”. Where then will be their holier than thou “I’ve got mine, it’s your fault if you don’t have yours”…”God will provide”….it’s all in the name of “progress” and “it’s our land to do with what we want”, blah, blah, blah BS be????? It will be TOO LATE.

    I voice my opinion on this and many other subjects to my “representatives” (what a laugh) over and over and I try to vote them out over and over and my head still hurts from banging it against the incredible brick wall that seems to be the voters of Alaska. And these are the “Pro-Life” people—sure doesn’t count when it comes to the environment….

    I’ve got my wetsuit ready for the end game protest. And I give what I can to Cook Inletkeeper. Beyond that, hope is fleeting.

  5. MinNJ says:

    Thank you, AKM, for your steadfast and diligent concern re: our earth’s health. A fight, for sure. All the world is at risk every day, and it is a frightening and dreadful concern for all of us everywhere.

  6. Baker's Dozen says:

    Keep on fighting. Such places need to stay the way they are. Somehow, I think we need fish more tha coal. After all, when Jesus fed the crowds, he did it with bread and fish, not crude and coal.

    • slipstream says:

      Jesus fed the disciples with bread and fish grilled over a . . . um . . . charcoal fire. John 21:9.

  7. AKMuckraker says:

    There is still a long way to go in this fight. The permitting process will march ahead. It would have been nice to have this buffer zone in place, but someone had other ideas. The best thing we can do is start electing people to statewide office who really care about… oh, I don’t know… the STATE. Thanks to all for your caring and concern. I’ll keep everyone up to date on the latest happenings, of course. Also sharing the story with your social media circles will help to get people informed.

    Pebble is still a much better known project in Alaska, and many people, even within 50 miles and visual range of this mine site have never heard of it.

  8. Ratfish says:

    If Parnell is ignoring his own Alaska Fish and Game Department- which determined that there is significant salmon habitat that will be destroyed by this project (don’t worry, we’ll restore it in 25 years”), just think what he intends to do with Pebble.


  9. jimzmum says:

    I am so sorry. Is there anything we can do if we live outside?

  10. This is disgusting…! That bald guy with the thick neck looks like a real caring human (not!)

  11. benlomond2 says:

    As most of coal is not intended to stay within the State of Alaska, would this possibly fall under Fed Commerce ; and then possibly involve Fed EPA ?? where are those endangered species/beetles when you need them ??

  12. Moose Pucky says:

    In a possibly related matter, the Vancouver Sun is reporting the Yukon River is carrying high levels of Mercury to the Arctic Ocean. They suspect thawing permafrost and

    …”the other main theory is the recent increases in atmospheric pollution coming from Eurasia,” he said, adding that prevailing winds from the Bering Sea lead to much of that pollution being directed at the interior of Alaska.”

    Industrial pollution from burning coal in Asia may be contributing directly to increased mercury levels in the Yukon River and Arctic Ocean and fossil fuel burning/carbon in the atmosphere also a factor in rapidly melting permafrost.

    And the State of Alaska still pursues short-term thinking over the protests of its citizens.

  13. Maria says:

    There has got to be a way to stop this. I’m thinking an environmental or tribal lawsuit…in federal court? Something! Anything!

  14. lisa says:

    Outrageous. Time to sue the state. This is the beginning of the end for salmon habitat. There is no way around this folks, we all saw it coming down the road with Palin when one of her campaign ads as governor was a photo of her ripping through a stream on her ATV with her kid hanging on behind her. It is as bad as the Cain ad with the guy smoking a cigarette at its conclusion. Lots of subliminal messages that are saying come on: Get rid of rules, codes, and environmental regulation!

  15. Zyxomma says:

    Hedgewytch, that’s a great idea on paper. In reality, however, I’m afraid that (considering how corrupt the state has proven itself time and again) it won’t be enough. More drastic measures will be called for, perhaps much more drastic.

    When PacRim brings in the earth-moving equipment, it will be time to place human bodies in their way. Link arms, and lie in the paths of the bulldozers (or whatever those huge earth movers are called). Once the salmon’s gone, and the air is full of coal dust, everyone who lives nearby (and particularly the subsistence fishermen) is dead anyway. With video cameras rolling, it’s unlikely they’d dare to run anyone over, and if enough people were to show up, there wouldn’t be enough police officers to arrest all of you. If, when the time comes, I’m not short of cash, I’ll come, too.

    I’m positively incredulous that anyone on Earth could risk a productive salmon habitat, let alone the number one, most productive salmon habitat in the entire world, to strip-mine sub-lignite coal!! Yes, right now, the Chinese are hungry for it, but by the time it’s mined, it may well be worthless. At present, China is leading the world in creating renewables. Once they’re the top producers of wind and solar tech, why the eff would they want to burn the dirtiest coal there is?

    Occupy Chuitna!! Occupy Cook Inlet!!!

    • Zyxomma says:

      Oops! I meant to reply to Hedgewytch at #1, but submitted a comment that ended up as #3. I know the brilliant mudpups will figure out what I was trying to do, and forgive me.

      • Baker's Dozen says:

        Hmmm. Well, as I have never, ever made a mistake in my life, I shall instead to decide to cast the first stone. “-D

    • I’m with everyone in spirit…!

    • luckycharms says:

      I think you are confusing Chuitna with Pebble, which is the largest wild salmon fishery. The Chuit River is no slouch, though. It feeds right into Cook Inlet which has a large commercial and sport fishery associated with it. The Chuit has all five species of salmon, and many of them at that. This mine would have a devastating impact on the area, no question. Just wanted to clear up that one misconception. Your passion is still well placed.

      • luckycharms says:

        I meant to say, of course, that Pebble (which would be a gold/copper mine) is near Bristol Bay which is the largest salmon fishery…

      • Zyxomma says:

        I didn’t mean that it was the largest. I meant that it contains all five species. Really, what are the salmon supposed to do? Take a detour away from their spawning place? This SO p*sses me off, and I haven’t eaten fish in decades.

        IMO, this misguided project is as bad as mountaintop removal in Appalachia, where many of the side hikes I took after leaving the Appalachian Trail are now GONE. Sure, the AT is still there (thank you, Jimmy Carter), but 500′ of nearby mountains have been clearcut and blasted away. At least this devastation unearthed top-quality coal (it burns cleaner than the sub-lignite sh*t at Chuitna because it’s so very old; the Appalachian Range is the oldest mountain range extant on the planet). I am livid.

    • I’m fairly certain than rethugs and their Chinese friends could manufacture salmon in Chinese sweatshops for pennies on the dollar and sell them in Alaska as Native grown plastic trout for several bucks a fish. They can always claim Obama and tariffs are what make the plastic trout so plasticky tasting and expensive,but a person could get used to it in time. If you attach little chinese made motors(sold seperately) you could get them to swim against the flow and make what’s her name happy.

  16. Baker's Dozen says:

    I’ve been there!

    I could swear on a stack of first edition Caspar the Ghost comic books that that is where I caught my first–and last–salmon. I was a kid, 8 or 10 I think, when we went to Alaska in the mid 60’s and my dad, Mr. Wildcat (I’m Baker’s Dozen nee Wildcat) took me fishing. My sister was 6 I guess. She fished for 30 seconds and got bored. We camped alongside the river in our camper. There was a guy from Jamaica there, too. I remember that because I loved his accent. There was another fisher there from Georgia. I remember that, too, because I’d never heard an accent like that (being a native left-coaster) and was intrigued. He said something to me about the Jamaican that made no sense to be whatsoever, though I knew all the words. I didn’t ask anyone about it, but it was several years later when I realized what he had said. I believe that was during the civil rights era when the whole nation got to hear just how lots of white Southern folk talked. I was shocked when I figured it out. I will NOT repeat it here.

    But could this be where I caught that very yummy salmon?

  17. hedgewytch says:

    Time to sue the state then. If this is blatantly against the State Constitution and the will of the people, for whom the Governor has sworn to serve, then I think we’ve got a case. That or start impeachment proceedings.