Fish And Coal Together: How ‘Either/Or’ Becomes ‘Both/And’
by Kathryn G. Arlen
“The Chuitna Coal Project is not a choice between a coal mine and fish—it is designed for BOTH,” states PacRim LP’s mantra for the future coal mine located just 45 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska. And Dan Graham, PE and Chuitna Project Manager, further emphasized that philosophy: “I just think that as an industry we all need to approach our projects from a responsible development perspective…and particularly for us, with the sensitive issue of salmon. You have to extend your efforts if you expect to move your project forward.”
The future surface coal mine, with projected life span of 25 years, expects to produce an average 12 million metric tons of sub-bituminous, ultra low sulfur coal per year, depending on market demand. But it will also simultaneously protect and enhance the local environment, as Graham explained both in a Sept. 16 presentation to the Alaska Miners Association Fairbanks membership and in a follow-up interview.
PacRim’s plan may seem simple, at least in intent, but still creates impressive challenges. As Graham explained “…the two keys are creating new [fish] habitat downstream before we start mining, and then, when we’re done, constructing habitat within the [former] mine area as part of the reclamation plan.”
Considering all the intense publicity surrounding the proposed Pebble Copper/Gold mine and its possible adverse affects on Alaska’s salmon industry, any mention of “fishing and mining” in the same sentence is bound to draw attention and many questions. But “the scope and issue they have are completely different from ours,” Graham first discussed, and continued stressing how the coal industry in particular needs to be sensitive to environmental issues: “It’s not an ‘either/or.’ We don’t have one resource vs. another, we’re not in competition. We’re in partnership.” Further emphasizing this concept he cited several highly successful reclamation examples from around the state including the Denali Mine at Valdez Creek, Fish Creek at Fort Knox Mine [gold], Middle Fork of Red Dog Creek at the Red Dog Mine [zinc], and others.
As Graham reiterated throughout his comments and presentation much current opposition to mining efforts centers on the “this can’t be done” criticism, but PacRim [and other companies] intend to continue proving that successful and enhancing environmental reclamation can coexist with necessary mining activity. Lakes now exist where none did before, natural stream beds resume, wetland ponds form in depressions of reclaimed areas, ducks, beaver, moose, etc. utilize the areas, and in many cases fish population has increased after reclamation efforts.
PacRim’s efforts will address two time periods: during the mine’s lifetime and after mining has ceased. Some of the projects during mining include creating side-channels for salmon rearing and spawning, adding nutrients, monitoring and adjusting [as needed], and implementing the ARED system as an alternative plan if salmon don’t successfully spawn on their own. (With this approach the fish are captured, their eggs fertilized, then the salmon are released into their natural habitat for incubation, thus avoiding the “hatchery fish” label.)
During the traditional post-mining reclamation period habitat reconstruction will constitute the main focus. Water supply, streams in particular, surface as a major issue.
“The first thing you have to do is look hard at what you’re dealing with, and in our case with the Chuit River and its tributaries we’re mostly dealing with coho salmon.” The second issue is testing fish numbers/population, then the third and fourth steps in this reclamation process focus on water management (flow/discharge) and quality. “Our water source is mostly storm water. We don’t have a processing wash, no chemical process involved, and that’s a key—this is soft coal, ultra low sulfur. Some power plants can get compliance [just] by burning this coal.” Thus, understanding “area hydrology and hydrogeology in the area” is critical for generating a successful water management plan for streams both below and adjacent to the mine site.
In addition to identifying and researching case studies from around the Pacific Northwest, Graham added that the state’s Fish and Game department has been both cooperative and helpful in “pointing us towards the science behind the designing. But I wouldn’t say that turns into instant approval. We still have to prove our design on its merits.”
Design approval, of course, translates into that hoped-for, eventual “green light” for permitting. As have many others, “We are finding the permitting avenue to be an incredible challenge,” Graham understandably lamented. “We are in an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) process that normally takes about two years, and we’re in year five and still have at least a year and a half to go. It began in 2006.”
Why is this taking so long, or longer than originally expected? “It’s combination of things,” Graham continued. “For one, agencies want more and more information, so we’ve had to go back and gather additional baseline information. Plus we have redone the design since 2006, and that has put things on hold until our new plan is finalized. But this is being thoroughly vetted. I mean, the level of scrutiny that is being given to this project….” one can conclude is quite intense.
And perhaps that is as it should be, as the project manager continued commenting on the “state of the world” from the mining perspective, citing such organizations as the powerful Sierra Club and its persistent “bird-dogging” efforts, particularly relating to the coal industry. In other words, one aim of this particular coal mine project is to prove the critics wrong: “you say it can’t be done. Here’s proof that it can, and we will continue to do it right.” Once again, another tangible example of transforming the “either/or” dictum into a productive, inclusive “both/and” philosophy, with results.