SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Fish Factor

Fishermen worried about Chuitna coal mine project


September 13, 2010

A call is out for public comments on a request to extend exploration permits for what would be Alaska's largest coal mine. The Chuitna Coal Strip Mine (so called because it removes the wetlands and land overlay) is being developed on the west side of Upper Cook Inlet by Delaware-based PacRim Coal LP.

The extension request is routine as the permits must be updated every two years, according to project director Dan Graham. He said comments should be sent to the state Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mining, Land and Water by September 24.

But as of September 10 you won't find the Chuitna coal mine project listed on the DNR site, nor was there any mention of a comment period in the public notices section.

"We are still working on getting all our documents up on the state web site - it's a work in progress," said Russell Kirkham, DNR Coal Regulatory Program Manager, when queried in a phone call. "I know there was a problem with the server and it never got on to the public notice server. The notice did go out to the affected communities and agencies by mail."

The first phase of the 5,000 acre Chuitna coal mine site includes 55 square miles of fish and wildlife habitat, and potentially removes 11 miles of prime salmon streams. What is troubling is that you won't find the word "fish" mentioned in any PacRim or related DNR research documents. (Mr. Kirkham declined to comment on that omission.)

According to a 2009 DNR document (found by a Google search) the Chuitna Coal Project is "at an advanced permitting stage." It describes the proposal as "a surface coal mine and associated support facilities, mine access road, coal transport conveyor, personnel housing and air strip facility, a logistic center, and coal export terminal. The current project predicts a minimum 25 year mine life with a production rate of up to 12 million tons a year." All told, the project includes three coal mines within a 20,571 acre area leased by the Kenai Peninsula Borough. PacRim pays $40,000 per year to the borough for keeping its lease option open.

PacRim's Clean Water Act permit states they would discharge on average 7 million gallons of mine waste and runoff into the Chuitna River every day. Plans filed with DNR show the coal would be crushed and transported on a 12 mile, partially covered conveyor belt to a shoreside facility at Ladd Landing, where up to 500,000 metric tons of coal will be stored. A dock jutting two-miles out into the Inlet would shuttle the coal onto 1,200 foot freighters several times a week. The giant vessels would travel through Shelikof Strait and along the Aleutian Chain to deliver all the coal to Asian power plants.

Terry Jorgensen holds the lease to a setnet site on Three Mile Beach, which has been fished since 1896. He is one of seven setnetters who have held private property leases in the area for generations, and who fear displacement by PacRim.

"The two mile trestle would go right over my head. But the other problem is they want to build a permanent 400 feet wide, 600 feet long island a few feet in front of where I fish. So I am at ground zero and it would put me and all the fishermen behind me out of business," he said.

Jorgensen said fishermen are most worried about effects from the dewatering process necessary to retrieve the coal.

The three streams in the coal mine area are one-third of the entire Chuitna River. So when you dewater this vast acreage and pump more than seven million gallons a day into the river to get the water down to mine the coal, you are completely changing the hydrology of the region," Jorgensen said. "These lower coal seams are really toxic with iron, so we are extremely worried. This is the Kenai of the west - it is the number one subsistence and sports fishing stream, and the biggest producer of salmon. So it's all about the water and trying to save the river."

Jorgensen said the fishermen are not against development, and they have worked well together with the oil and gas industry and the Chugach electric facility for 30 years.

"They respect commercial fishermen. The coal company just sent me a letter saying they want to displace me and to talk about costs. I told them I don't want to be displaced and that's where we are," he said.

A letter to Jorgensen from William Vallee, a professional land management service, said: "As you may know, PacRim Coal is pursuing a significant project to develop the coal resources in the Beluga area of Alaska. During a routine examination of the DNR case file, it appears that you will need financial assistance in displacement costs relative to locating to a new site. PacRim Coal and others connected to with the project want you to know that we will be pleased to render financial assistance in that we will pay all costs that you may incur in the process."

Dennis Gann at Cook InletKeeper's Anchorage office believes the Chuitna coal project has ramifications for development throughout the state.

"It would be the first project to directly mine through a salmon stream, trading one resource for another. It is a precedent that I don't think we want to move toward," he added.

Gann added that even though the current public comment period is for a routine permit renewal, "it is a great opportunity for Alaska citizens to weigh in."

Send comments to Russell Kirkham at or at 550 W. 7th Avenue #920, Anchorage, Alaska 99501 (907) 269-8930. Deadline is Sept. 24.

Eating fish falls, faves the same

Americans ate less seafood last year - 15.8 pounds per person, the lowest level since 2002. That's down slightly from 16 pounds the per capita in 2008.

According to the top 10 list compiled each year by the National Fisheries Institute, America's seafood favorites remained largely the same. Shrimp held on to the top spot at 4.1 pounds per capita - more than a quarter of total seafood consumption. Canned tuna stayed at #2 at 2.5 pounds per person, down slightly.

Salmon held on to the #3 spot and consumption increased to more than two pounds per person. Alaska pollock ranked #4, at nearly 1.5 pounds per capita. Tilapia was close behind at #5, followed by catfish, cod and clams. The final spot bumped flatfish from the list and went to a new comer- pangasius, a mild whitefish farmed mostly in Vietnam. Pangasius is increasingly popular in fish and chips and fish tacos and market watchers say it is likely to be in the top five favorites within 10 years.

Here are some fun fish-eating facts from Intrafish: Since 1980 more fish has been eaten when a Republican is in the White House. Since 2000, production of fish sticks has jumped 76% to more than 70 million pounds. China and Thailand accounted for nearly 40% of all seafood imported into the US last year, while China and Japan accounted for 42% of US seafood exports.

Finally, beef is still "what's for dinner." Americans ate more than 108 pounds of red meat, followed by nearly 73 pounds of poultry per person last year.


This weekly column focusing on Alaska's seafood industry began in 1991, and it now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A spin off - Fish Radio - airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. The goal of both is to make all people aware of the economic and social importance of Alaska's fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world. Happy New Year and thanks for your continued support of fishing news!

Laine can be reached at msfish[AT]


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Ketchikan, Alaska

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