ANCHORAGE - Salmon-producing streams near a proposed coal mine will never fully recover if the mine is developed, according to three reports commissioned by a public interest law firm.
The reports found that damage to the streams would be irreversible.
Scientists at the request of Trustees for Alaska looked at the impact of the Chuitna coal mine project on the west side of Cook Inlet, 45 miles from Anchorage. The site is being developed by PacRim Coal LP, a Delaware-based company that plans to mine an estimated 300 million metric tons of coal over 25 years.
Plans call for building the strip mine, as well as a road, a conveyor system to transport coal, housing, an air strip facility, a logistics center and an export terminal with a 10,000-foot trestle into Cook Inlet.
Most of the coal would be shipped to Asia for burning in power plants.
Commercial salmon fishermen, subsistence users and area residents oppose the mine. They fear it will contaminate the salmon-producing Chuit River and destroy tributaries, wetlands and traditional fishing grounds.
Scientists looked at PacRim's hydrology reports, as well as its preliminary mining and reclamation plans, in making their conclusions. The reports were prepared for the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Cook Inlet Keeper, a nonprofit advocacy group.
A call to PacRim for comment Monday was not immediately returned.
Plans to develop the Beluga coal fields go back to the early 1990s when the project received nearly all the state and federal permits needed. However, the project never went forward at that time.
Regulations have changed since then, as well as the project design, requiring repermitting of the project. In the meantime, the area remains undeveloped. PacRim currently is pursuing permits for the project.
What PacRim proposes to do at Chuitna has never been done before, said Kendra Zamzow with Citizens for Science and Public Participation, who is working on her own report about the mine's water chemistry. Zamzow reviewed the other three reports.
PacRim wants to completely remove a salmon-producing stream, perhaps digging down hundreds of feet, and rebuild it once the mining operation ends, she said.
"There is no evidence that anyone has been able to put this kind of stream back together again," Zamzow said Monday.
About 20 percent of the Chuitna River salmon stocks come from the stream, she said.
Two other nearby salmon-producing streams also likely would be affected because of disruptions in groundwater, said Lance Trasky, a retired biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and author of one of the reports.
The scientists found that restoring the wetlands that feed into the Chuit River would be impossible.
"There is no scientific evidence that wetlands or streams can be put back together to be living, healthy ecosystems after the kind of mining impacts described in the PacRim reports," said Margaret Palmer, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland and author of one of the reports.
Trasky said he searched the scientific literature and talked to experts and did not find one case in which salmon habitat that had been strip-mined was successfully restored.
"It is not clear it can be done," he said.
Trasky also found that there is insufficient data on Chuitna salmon populations to know how much harm the proposed mine would do.
Commercial fisherman Terry Jorgensen said the reports throw doubt on the company's claims that its mine won't have significant impacts on the Chuit River.
"The law requires that the mined areas be returned to pre-mining condition after the coal has been extracted, but there is no scientific evidence that a salmon stream mined through in the manner PacRim proposes can ever be restored," Jorgensen said.