Critics line up to protest proposed mine

Company plans large coal project near Anchorage

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Environmental groups are taking aim at a massive proposed Alaska mine that's just 45 miles away from the state's largest city.

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PacRim Coal LP proposes to mine coal near the Chuitna River across Cook Inlet from Anchorage.

The company initially is applying for a permit covering 10,000 acres and will mine half that, said project director Bob Stiles. The company hopes to pull out 300 million metric tons of sub-bituminous coal, roughly equal to the energy of a billion barrels of oil, over 25 years.

Mine construction would mean up to 300 jobs, and peak mine operations would put 350 people to work.

Unlike the proposed Pebble Mine project, targeting gold and copper in southwest Alaska, which may be years away from submitting a mine development plan, the coal developers expect to turn in a coal mine permit, including development and reclamation plans, to the state Department of Natural Resources by the end of July. Hearings on various permits could be scheduled as early as January, Stiles said.

Critics are gearing up to stop it. They say the mine and adjacent leases threaten more than 55 square miles of wildlife and fish, including tributaries of the Chuitna River, which supports five species of wild salmon.

They also want the mine stopped for a more fundamental reason: Greenhouse gases emitted by the burning of fossil fuels led to global warming. Climate change has harmed Alaska's forests, streams, glaciers and sea ice, critics say. Burning millions of tons of Alaska coal will foul the state's own nest, critics say.

"Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels," said Becca Bernard, an attorney for Trustees for Alaska.

It doesn't matter that the coal may be burned in Asia, she said. Warming affects the Arctic and sub-Arctic more than other regions, she said, and prevailing winds send over Asia's harmful emissions, such as mercury, that affect Alaska's fish.

Alaska is rich in minerals, and developers have long hoped to make Alaska a major exporter of coal. Alaska holds roughly half of America's coal reserves.

But Alaska coal mines have been bedeviled by competitive roadblocks since the Russian-American Co. opened the first one in 1855 at Port Graham on the Kenai Peninsula. That mine couldn't compete with coal from Canada, Australia, England and Chile. Other Alaska coal mines closed because of competition from petroleum.

The only mine currently operating is Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. of Healy in interior Alaska, which sells to customers in Alaska and South Korea.

Stiles acknowledges difficulties in starting up a new mine. Coal is not a pure commodity like gold and the going price can't be checked in New York markets like oil, he said.

"Your sales are relational as opposed to transactional," he said. "It takes a long time to develop relationships with prospective customers."

PacRim is controlled by Texas businessmen Richard D. Bass and Herbert Hunt, and the Hunt Family Trust. The Hunt family was an original partner of Arch Coal, which contributes 11 percent of America's coal supply, according to its Web site.

"We know a little bit about the market," Stiles said.

The primary market for Chuitna would be countries in northern Asia, he said.

The mine's proximity to the ocean is an asset. So is electricity available from a natural gas power plant nearby in the community of Beluga.

But the lack of any other infrastructure - roads, export terminals, support facilities, housing - is a challenge, Stiles said.

The developers propose a strip mine. Miners remove overburden - dirt, rocks or anything over the coal - from a long strip of land, extract the coal, and then start another strip. Overburden from succeeding strips is dumped into the previously dug hole.

"You just move the hole," Stiles said.

Coal would be crushed and transported on a 12-mile, partially covered conveyor and stored at tidewater. A trestle nearly 2 miles into Cook Inlet would take coal to ocean vessels.

Residents of Beluga, population 21, and nearby Tyonek, population 199, fear damage from coal dust blowing into creeks and communities. Beluga whales, recommended for listing as an endangered species in April, swim off the coast. Fishermen with set net permits fear mining will affect their catch.

Mine opponents say strip mining will damage thousands of acres of habitat for moose, bear, birds and fish and interrupt subsistence hunting and gathering.

One of the biggest objections focuses on the area's aquifer. Coal would be extracted from bog and fen wetlands that contribute to the capacity of the watershed to provide high quality fish habitat, said Bernard of Trustees for Alaska.

"They will have to de-water the area before they dig the main pit," Bernard said, pumping out groundwater and dumping it elsewhere.

Strip mining will affect the complex hydrology - groundwater and surface water systems - of the lands that enrich the streams, make them rich habitat and regulate flow, she said. Once disturbed, such complex wetlands are difficult to put back together again, she said.

"The literature is clear: They're difficult, if not impossible, to restore," she said.

Dennis Gann / The Associated Press

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