AK Voices: Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Living with Wildness" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness."

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Facing the Specter of Alaska’s ‘New Coal Rush’

Though most Alaskans are largely – if not completely – unaware of it, and local media have mostly ignored or overlooked what’s happening, there is substantial evidence that our state is moving toward what some residents are calling the “Alaska Coal Rush.”

This is not a good thing, for all sorts of reasons.

As anyone who pays attention to such matters is aware, coal is a relatively cheap but awfully dirty source of energy. Dirty as in polluting, spreading toxins (most notably mercury) into the atmosphere, water, and landscape, and, through coal-fired power plants, adding huge amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, thus contributing substantially to global warming.

Recently I came across an article, titled The Great Alaska Coal Rush, that explores what is happening in our state, with an emphasis on Southcentral Alaska. I doubt that many Alaskans have seen the article, because it’s on the Sierra Club website and the Sierra Club, of course, is not a place that most Alaskans go for their information. Still, the article is worth reading because it spells out, in more detail than I’ve seen anywhere to date, what’s at stake.

The story was certainly an eye-opener for me. I had no idea that Alaska has an estimated 5.5 trillion – yes, TRILLION – tons of coal reserves, which apparently equals one-half of the nation’s, and one-eighth of the world’s, known reserves. Most of it, however, is not easily accessible, because the large majority of the coal formations are located in remote northern Alaska, far from the infrastructure and work force needed to mine and transport it. This, to me, is a fortunate circumstance, though no doubt many Alaskans would disagree.

Some of the coal, however, is within comparatively easy reach of developers, most notably a deposit located on the west side of Cook Inlet, about a 20-minute flight from Alaska’s urban center. Right now, the landscape above the coal deposits consists mostly of lowland forests, bogs, ponds, and streams. Among those flowing waters is the Chuitna River, one of northern Cook Inlet’s significant salmon streams. Only a few hundred people live in the area, mostly in the villages of Beluga and Tyonek.

Not far from the salmon-producing Chuitna River, reports writer Tomas Alex Tizon, “developers want to build one of the largest open-pit mines in the country – and the largest ever in the state. The main developer, PacRim Coal, a Delaware company backed by Texas investors, would like to begin construction in 2010 and within two years strip away 5,000 acres of wild, including 11 miles of Middle Creek, a Chuitna River tributary.” If the project goes through, an average of 7 million gallons of mine wastewater will pour into Chuitna tributaries DAILY.

Bob Shavelson of the locally based environmental organization Cook Inlet Keeper has no doubt what that would mean: “The river will die,” he told Tizon, along with the Chuitna’s salmon and Dolly Varden. He also predicts that much of the region’s ecosystem will collapse with it.

Lest anyone think this is simply greenie doom-and-gloom stuff, it should be noted that most residents of the area are also opposed to the mine. Though the Athabascan residents of Tyonek and the mostly non-Native residents of Beluga don’t necessarily agree on much, in this case they’re joined in their opposition to the Chuitna coal project, while also forging alliances with environmental groups and reaching out to the residents of other Alaskan communities facing nearby coal extraction, including Point Lay and Point Hope in the Arctic and Chickaloon northeast of Palmer along the Glenn Highway.

In 2007, a group called the Chuitna Citizens NO-COALition asked the state to designate the Chuitna River watershed “unsuitable for coal mining.” Amazingly, both the Department of Natural Resources and a state court rejected the petition, for “lack of sufficient supporting evidence.” Despite the setback, the coalition is working on a new petition, while compiling more evidence of the harm that coal mining would do to the area.

It’s disheartening and sadly ironic that Alaska is moving toward unprecedented large-scale coal strip mining, at a time when much of the nation – and the world – is moving toward cleaner, renewable energy sources. Alaska, after all, is widely recognized as our country’s “ground zero” for the impacts of global warming and, as already noted, coal burning is a major producer of greenhouse gases. Beside that, coal mining’s release of mercury would pose a huge threat to Alaska’s commercial fisheries. It’s a double whammy that could do irreparable harm to our state’s lands, waters, air, fisheries, wildlife, and human communities.

We can only hope that this newest rush for riches is stopped in its tracks before it gets started.

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