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Help Save One of America's Most Pristine and Endangered Rivers from Proposed Coal Mine

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Approximately 45 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, near Beluga and Tyonek, lies the Chuitna River watershed. Like most of Alaska’s untouched beauty, this area houses pristine aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. These areas are home to animals such as fox, lynx, wolves, coyotes, wolverines, waterfowl, bears, moose and beluga whales. However, the most important renewable resource to Alaska’s economy, culture and well-being includes five species of wild Pacific salmon, including sockeye, coho, chinook, pink and chum salmon. These five species use the Chuitna River and its tributaries for spawning purposes. Salmon are keystone species in these environments because animals and other organisms rely on them as part of their diet.

Middle Creek in the Chuitna River watershed is part of the proposed coal mining site. Photo credit: Brandon Hill

Among this beautiful, pristine, nearly untouched ecosystem, an out of state company, PacRim Coal has proposed a coal strip mine. Not only is the coal market dwindling in today’s economy, but this proposal would be the first in Alaska’s history to even think about mining directly through a salmon stream. A conservative estimate of the total length of salmon streams to be removed would be roughly 13.7 miles through Middle Creek, a main tributary in the Chuitna River watershed. Besides the destruction of the streams, PacRim Coal would have to dig 300 feet down to have access to the coal bed. This estimate only accounts for the first phase of coal mining on West Cook Inlet. The project would have a total of three phases, all destroying salmon habitat. PacRim owns the leases to these three phases, while another company, Barrick Gold holds the surrounding coal leases. Both PacRim’s and Barrick Gold’s leases would displace 57 miles of salmon streams and a total area of 60 square miles, all to produce 12 million tons of coal per year for a minimum of 25 years.

Both PacRim’s and Barrick Gold’s leases would displace 57 miles of salmon streams and a total area of 60 square miles. Photo credit: Doug Tosa

If PacRim receives the green light, they would set up infrastructure that would make it viable to mine both companies’ coal leases in an area full of streams and wetlands. The established infrastructure would include an eight-mile conveyor belt to transport coal from the mine site to a man-made island, and then a two-mile trestle to reach the barges leaving Cook Inlet. If that doesn’t sound bad enough the coal product would not be staying in or benefiting the U.S., the low-grade coal will be exported to Asian markets.

The wetlands that would be damaged from the development of the mine would alter the ecosystem in different ways. Wetlands are natural filtration systems, breeding areas and provide habitat for multiple organisms. The protection of all interconnecting waterways including wetlands, rivers, lakes, ponds and oceans are crucial to healthy aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. If a disturbance like a coal mine interferes with a wetland, it may take the wetland over 10 years to regain its natural state including abundant flora and fauna.

The project would destroy these wetlands, which are home to countless species. Photo credit: Paul Moinester

According to an economic report conducted by Center for Sustainable Economy in 2011, “For every $1 generated by things like taxes, royalties and job creation, there is $3-6 in economic losses in the form of environmental damage, reclamation costs and lost economic opportunity.” That figure amounts to $2 billion that Alaska would lose economically over the course of the coal mine. The Chuitna Watershed supports sport, commercial and subsistence fishing adding to the fisheries economy and a way of life for Alaska Natives.

A public comment period with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources on an application for an in-stream flow reservation applied for by Chuitna Citizens Coalition ended a few weeks ago. There was an overwhelming 7,000 Alaskans that commented in support of the in-stream flow reservation. An in-stream flow reservation is a water right that can be obtained by an individual, organizations or government organizations. A reservation of water is to ensure that the stream level is at an adequate level for the individual or organization applying and the public’s use, while not used for other purposes. An in-stream reservation can be applied to protect fish and wildlife, recreation, transportation and sanitation. If the in-stream flow reservation is accepted, the Chuitna Citizens Coalition will have precedent over others who file later. In this case, PacRim has done that very thing; it has applied for an out-of-stream reservation. An out-of-stream reservation is a water right to remove water from a system for power generation, industrial use, irrigation, mining and recreational (e.g. snowmaking).

The in-stream flow reservation would protect salmon runs in Middle Creek. Photo credit: Brandon Hill

Earlier this month, the nonprofit American Rivers released its list for America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2015, and the Chuitna River came in at number six. The list highlights the major threat of PacRim’s coal mine in the Chuitna River watershed. The report states that the mine would produce 7 million gallons of mine waste per day. The estimated flow of Middle Creek at the southern boundary of the mine is on average 6.5 million gallons per day. This essentially means the proposed mine would take a clean, healthy, productive river and replace it with a river's worth of polluted waters. Mine waste in the Cook Inlet region would pose threats to the Inlet’s endangered beluga whales and other marine life. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is expected to release a draft environmental impact statement soon, initiating a public comment period.

To bring awareness to this pristine watershed and the threats of the coal strip mine, Save the Chuitna and Patagonia produced a documentary, Chuitna: More Than Salmon on the Line, which has been screened across the country including at the 2015 Wild and Scenic Film Festival.

Watch the gripping trailer here:

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