A resource development company has decided it will no longer pursue a strip mining operation on the west side of Cook Inlet. The Chuitna Coal Project would have been the largest coal strip mining operation in the state, if it had moved forward.
Plans for the project have been in the works for decades, with a hallmark of the process being strained back and forth between industry concerns and environmental supporters.
As of the end of March, however, PacRim Coal has decided to suspend all of its permitting activities for the project. PacRim Coal sent a letter announcing the decision to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on March 30th.
The decision was announced publicly the next day on the Chuitna webpage through the Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land, and Water.
“Well, the west side of Cook Inlet is still a very remote and spectacularly beautiful place and the Chuitna watershed is unique in that it supports all five species of wild pacific salmon," said Cook Inletkeeper’s Bob Shavelson speaking with KBBI back in 2015.
Inletkeeper had partnered with a local advocacy group called the Chuitna Citizens Coalition in opposition to the mine.
“Like everywhere around Cook Inlet, the Chinook fisheries have been getting hammered recently and nobody has a great understanding on that. But, the Chuitna River has been listed by the Department of Fish and Game as a fishery of concern for Chinook," Shavelson said. "That’s just another reason that we should protect it because if our king salmon are hanging on by a thread right now, we need to provide everything that we can in a changing climate to make sure they have the resilience to fight back.”
The Native Village of Tyonek lauded the decision to do just that in a statement released yesterday.
“Our salmon, our way of life, and our land are safe," wrote Tribal President Arthur Standifer.
Tyonek and the nearby community of Beluga are the nearest villages to the proposed mining site.
“We can fish our river without any worries of harmful effects to our waters, our fish, or any marine life, as well as the wildlife that surround the waters of our river," said Standifer.
The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) also praised the announcement. They called it a powerful victory for Tyonek but said they recognized it as only one fight of many against development projects that “threaten to destroy the ways of life in Native communities throughout Alaska and across the United States.”
Over the past several years, there has been significant debate over water rights in the watershed. That stemmed from dueling proposals for water rights by both PacRim Coal and the Chuitna Citizens Coalition.
The company had proposed to divert water from a tributary of the Chuitna River called Middle Creek and mine hundreds of feet down. The coalition argued the tributary was crucial to spawning salmon in the area and should be reserved for fish.
In an interview with KBBI in 2015, coalition co-founder Judy Heilman said the needs of fishermen and subsistence users should be prioritized.
“It’s very important for Alaskans to be able to fish and fill their freezers with salmon," she said. "There’s never been a salmon stream that’s been restored that’s been destroyed like that.”
Had the project been permitted and moved forward, PacRim projected it would have a 25-year life and produce up to 12 million tons of coal per year as part of a surface mining and export development business.