My turn: Two reasons to oppose Chuitna Coal Project

Coal removal will hurt Beluga area; U.S. needs to revamp its energy policy

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2006

PacRim Coal, a company representing Asian coal buyers, is proposing to surface mine coal near Beluga. Known as the Chuitna Coal Project, it is under review by regulatory authorities. So far it has received little press coverage.

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There are two reasons to oppose this project. The first regards the effect of coal removal will have on the Beluga area. The second regards our country's inadequate energy policy.

First, from the supplemental environmental impact statement, project documents and town hall meetings, many open questions remain:

1. What effect will the water quality or volume released into the watershed by the mining have on spawning salmon? Many rely on the salmon's health for subsistence or livelihood.

2. The 12-mile coal conveyor exposed to the high winds of the Cook Inlet would spew coal dust contaminating the surroundings and exposing people to unhealthy, particulate laden air. How might the new port and increased ship traffic in Cook Inlet affect the local threatened beluga whale population, which may be listed as an endangered species?

3. If the coal is burned in local power plants, Anchorage will see an increase in air pollutants including toxic mercury. Will harmful pollutants be adequately removed?

Local residents have many other concerns. PacRim's response is to tell us to trust them with the details. Yet we all know "the devil is in the details." The coal industry has a legacy of broken promises and environmental destruction. How will this be different?

So far, no one has provided technically sound answers to the contrary. This is a shortsighted national energy policy that doesn't address our dependence on dirty fossil fuels, resource management and, now, global warming. This country has a tainted history of wholesale destruction pursuing cheap, seemingly unlimited resources, the near extermination of wildlife for their pelts or other reasons; elimination or displacement of native Americans; deforestation from coast to coast which continues with clear-cutting in Alaska; the effects of strip coal mining has had on water quality and the health of the people of coal-producing states; overfishing in our waters including the Bering Sea; and what oil extraction has done to our land, water and wildlife (Exxon Valdez and North Slope spills).

Many counter these examples by maintaining that Alaska is huge and overflowing with resources; it's big compared to Texas, but it's small compared to the shocking efficiency with which automation extracts resources today. I've seen what unrestrained, poorly planned development has brought over the last five decades to the Northeast, including habitat destruction, more pollution and generally declining health. Do Alaskans want this?

Absent in the supplemental statement is a genuine consideration of alternative, clean, renewable energy sources such as tidal, wind, geothermal, wave and small-scale hydroelectricity. Economic growth and environmental stewardship are not mutually exclusive as detractors have suggested. We can have jobs and a clean environment by developing alternative energy. Furthermore, a recent British study and growing consensus among countries worldwide (except the United States) implores us to address global warming and resource management now using alternative energy-conservation to protect the world's economies. Otherwise, the cost of neglecting it could wreak global financial instability. The Chuitna Coal Project is a business-as-usual approach, so that a few can get rich by sending our resources overseas.

In "The World Is Flat," Thomas Friedman details how the global business playing field is becoming more competitive (flattened) by modern enabling technologies such as the Internet. Friedman expresses concern that countries such as India and China are quickly eroding the technological advantage the U.S. once held. He suggests a crash scientific initiative - similar to the Apollo program to land on the moon - to make the United States energy independent in 10 years via alternative energy and conservation. The creation of new jobs and the economic stimulus would rival anything seen in the latter half of the 20th century and unite us in a common cause.

I truly believe Americans have the wherewithal to achieve this goal and lead the world away from the dire consequences of global warming. All we lack is the political will. Alaska is the Last Frontier and our last chance to do it right by the forward-looking pursuit of alternative energy and protection of our remaining natural resources. Wouldn't it be great if Alaska could lead the country in this effort and persuade our politicians that it is time for change?

• Ray Bulson is a resident of Eagle River.

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