The Proposed Chuitna Coal Strip Mine

The proposed Chuitna coal strip mine, a project by PacRim Coal, a Delaware Corporation owned by Dick Bass and William Herbert Hunt, will be Alaska’s largest coal strip mine. Located 45 miles west of Anchorage near Toynek and Beluga it will also be the first project in the states history to directly mine through 11 miles of wild Alaskan salmon stream. PacRim Coal holds 20,571 acres of coal leases in the ares.  The Beluga Coal Company (Barrick Gold and CIRI) hold an additional 17, 686 acres of coal leases for a total of 60 square miles of coal leases straddling the head waters of the Chuitna Watershed.

PacRim Coal
PacRim Coal, a Delaware corporation funded by Texan investors, Dick Bass and William Herbert Hunt, is pushing to develop Alaska’s largest coal strip mine 45 miles west of Anchorage and less than 20 miles south of the Susitna River mouth near the communities of Tyonek and Beluga. PacRim has submitted many of their mining and reclamation plans including their ‘Fish and Wildlife Protection Plan’ which states:  “Some fish habitat may be impacted indirectly, but most impacts are anticipated as direct; approximately 17.4 km of total stream-channel habitat will be removed during the mining operations”.

The massive Chuitna coal strip mine project will set a dangerous precedent for the State of Alaska by permitting the destruction Middle Creek (stream 2003) by the complete removal of 11 miles of streambed and more than 300 feet of underlying soil and rock strata.

The EPA says:

“This Project is unique in that the current proposal is to mine through approximately 11 miles of stream 2003, starting with the first year of mining, and continuing through year 8.  This proposal would result in both direct and indirect impacts to fish and the natural ecosystem function of the Chuit River drainage in the short- and long-term. “

Regarding PacRim’s mining plans the National Marine Fisheries Service is on the record stating:  “We are aware of no example of successful salmon stream restoration at this scale.”

Upon a thorough review of PacRim’s plans, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on mining reclamation, Dr. Margaret A. Palmer Professor and Director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland stated very precisely:

“…Middle Creek will be completely destroyed. It will not be “impacted”, but rather mining will go down hundreds of feet beneath it, completely removing the stream bed and any remnant of the stream for 11 miles. While stream reconstruction has been done successfully by re-grading and re-vegetating banks, or adding or removing debris to create habitat, no one has simply created a new stream where none exists. A new ditch can be dug where the old stream used to be, and can have the same curves and shape. But it will not have the exchange of surface and groundwater at the streambed, upwelling areas for fish to lay their eggs in, biodiversity of insects that headwater streams provide as food for fish, the purity of water and nutrients wetlands provided.”

Middle creek has been identified by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as important to salmon and is one of the primary tributaries to the Chuitna River. The headwaters of Middle Creek produce roughly 20% of the silver salmon for the entire Chuitna River system and would be destroyed by the proposed coal strip mine.

PacRim Coal will completely remove the underlying soil and rock strata to depth of more than 300 feet not only destroying wetlands and streams, but destroying the entire underlying geology. Re-creating the complex three-dimensional diversity of interconnected underground sediments would be impossible. PacRim’s reclamation plans include the crazy notion that they will return the watershed to its pre-strip mine condition. There has never been a successful salmon stream restoration after such large scale destruction and there is no scientific evidence to suggest it can be restored to its current state of productivity.

The food web that sustains the Chuitna River is strongly dependent upon the buildup of accumulated nutrients which are the result of years of decaying salmon carcasses. By completely removing the streambed for miles, these critical nutrient zones will be destroyed and cannot be replaced. Even if pools and overhanging vegetation are re-installed, the replacement streambed will be nothing more than a “sterile” ditch.

The first phase of the project will extract 300 million tons of coal over 25 years, making it the largest strip mine in Alaska. The coal is expected to be exported to Asian coal fired power plants where lax pollution controls will lead to more pollution returning to Alaska.

Thousands acres of wetlands will be impacted. Wetlands maintain water quality in streams and ground water by capturing nutrients and metals. Wetlands also bind soils which reduces erosion, improves fish habitat are the source of many of the insects fish rely upon for food.

Streams in the Chuitna River watershed that aren’t destroyed outright will be filled with millions of extra gallons water everyday from groundwater in the mine pit that must be removed. PacRim plans to pump 7 million gallons of mine pit groundwater a day into “infiltration galleries” that are highly unlikely to work in this wetland environment, resulting in direct discharge into local streams. Mine pit water is heavily laden with iron, aluminum, and zinc and other heavy metals that will negatively impact any stream it flows through.

Natural stream flows will be changed by the volume of water continuously pumped into them—pools used for egg rearing may be destroyed. The unnatural stream flow will also disturb natural sedimentation patterns which will kill fish eggs.

Runoff from coal piles will be routed through sediment ponds that can not remove dissolved solids before flowing into local streams, these dissolved solids are toxic to fish eggs.

Impacts to the watershed and headwater streams from mining will fundamentally alter the chemical, hydrologic and sediment regimes for all downstream reaches.

The Myth of Reclamation
Coal mines are required to restore the land after operations cease. While it is relatively easy to reproduce surface contours and re-vegetate, it is much more difficult to return the groundwater and surface streams to their previous condition. Nowhere in Alaska has an industry so thoroughly destroyed a watershed and underlying geology—and nowhere in the world is there an example of such destruction being returned to its former productivity. Restoration of the fragile and valuable wetlands and streams that feed the Chuitna River is virtually impossible.