After last week’s announcement that PacRim Coal is halting plans for a strip-mine in their region, some inhabitants of the west Cook Inlet’s Chuitna watershed are declaring victory.
Many in the small villages of Tyonek and Beluga — respectively about 12 miles and 10 miles from the proposed mine site, and downstream of the salmon-spawning Chuitna River tributaries that the mine would have removed — believed their way of life was threatened by the project.
One of these is Judy Heilman of Beluga, a co-founder of the activist group Chuitna Citizens Coalition, which sought to reserve the water rights in a stream that flows through the planned mine site. Getting one of the three reservations the group applied for from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation took six years and a lawsuit against the agency for delaying processing of its application, and is still the subject of an ongoing appeal. Looking back on her activism against PacRim — which first announced its intentions to mine through the Chuitna River’s tributary system in 2006 — Heilman said the end of the company’s permit-seeking was both surprising and exciting.
“This has been going on for 10 years, and we didn’t think it would be over like this,” Heilman said. “After 10 years, you just don’t know how it’s going to go, but you don’t think they were just going to back out.”
PacRim’s plans called for a roughly seven-mile conveyor belt between the 5,050-acre mine site and an export terminal at Ladd Landing, a beach about 2.5 miles north of Tyonek. The Tyonek Native Corporation, which owns land that PacRim would have leased for the conveyor, has supported the mine proposal in comments to DNR, also citing contracting opportunities for the Corporation and the employment the mine could bring to some of its approximately 875 shareholders.
According to the Corporation’s website, 165 of these shareholders live in Tyonek village — making up most of the village’s population of 182 people. Tyonek’s tribal government feared for the Chuitna salmon runs that feed many of its residents and opposed the mine project.
The nonprofit legal firm Native American Rights Foundation (NARF) represented the tribal government’s opposition before state and federal regulators. NARF attorney Wesley Furlong said differentiating between tribal governments and Native Corporations is one of the unique aspects of his group’s work in Alaska, and NARF has a clear stance on who it stands for.
“We represent the village and not the corporation,” Furlong said. “There’s always some crossover — there’s some people who work for both, or who live in the village and are on the board of directors of the corporation. … We tend to view that the Corporation doesn’t necessarily represent the interest of the village — it represents the fiscal interest of the Corporation, and the villages happen to be shareholders. So it’s kind of a veneer — pretty much everyone out there is a shareholder of the corporation, but many people are also not supportive of what the corporation is doing in leasing its land for the conveyor system.”
Furlong said NARF helped Tyonek receive cooperating agency status with the Army Corps of Engineers — a level of regulatory involvement only open to government entities. He said doing so gave Tyonek a government-to-government relationship with the regulators, putting them “at the table in a way you don’t get to be at the table if you’re just submitting comments in a normal notice and comment period.”
Key investors in PacRim Coal — Texas oil billionaire William Herbert Hunt and rancher and Utah ski resort owner Richard Bass — previously sought to extract the Chuitna region’s coal deposit in the 1980s and 1990s through a partnership with the petroleum company Diamond Shamrock. The Diamond Shamrock coal project proposed plans similar to PacRim’s, and though it was permitted by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the EPA, the global coal market proved unfavorable and the partnership broke up.
During Diamond Shamrock’s permitting, Furlong said there had also been opposition in Tyonek, though it was “far more grassroots than what they did now.”
Tyonek resident Ernest Baker said the village of Beluga and Tyonek’s tribal government — which includes his daughter Janelle Baker, who serves on the village council as secretary and treasurer — “did a good job of confronting them (PacRim) right there and getting them stopped.”
A lifelong resident, Baker recalled the previous mining plans of the 80s and 90s.
“I never heard of Diamond Shamrock until they came knocking at my door,” Baker said. “Somebody told the supervisor up there I was a good person for the trouble they had.”
Heavy rains had caused landslides at Diamond’s exploration site, and the EPA was requiring them to repair it, Baker said, to keep collapsed material from washing into the surrounding creeks. He recalls a piece of trenching equipment fallen on its side and mud all around. After he helped with the repairs, Diamond hired him for other work.
“It was just like all the other jobs I had,” Baker said. “We went up there and pulled out some coal, bag it up, and they sent it out for testing.”
The more extensive support infrastructure of the Diamond-Shamrock mine may have had a greater impact on Tyonek than the PacRim plans, putting ports on the beach both to its north and south. In addition to the Ladd Landing dock PacRim had also planned to build, the Diamond Shamrock development also featured a second port with a conveyor belt about 4 miles south of Tyonek at Granite Point. According to Diamond Shamrock’s environmental impact statement, the company held a public hearing in Tyonek in August 1988. At the time, some there believed the mine would lead roads, infrastructure, and business to the west Inlet, Baker said.
“The coal company was supposed to be one of the big door-openers for making money and expand to this side of the Cook Inlet,” he said. It was a prospect he said he’d favored in his youth, though not without trepidation. Baker spoke of grocery stores and less costly transportation, but also of trash lining highways and overwhelming newcomers. Either way, he said, the economics would be the deciding factor, and they didn’t seem to work out.
“I’m retired now, so it’s nice and quiet, and it’d be nice if it stayed that way until at least I’m gone,” he said.
Regarding the PacRim plans, the thing Baker was most certain of is that mining “would change the whole west Cook Inlet.” He said that at his age, he has no plans of leaving Tyonek, whatever may happen, but that he’d “heard a lot of people saying they’d have packed up and moved, just because of the danger of it, and everything would change right there.”
Baker put little faith in PacRim’s plans to reconstruct the fish habitat it would be mining through.
“It’s just to make the money and get in and get out, and once they’re done with the coal mining, all this promise of bringing it back and replanting and everything else — that would be doubtful,” Baker said. “That’s about as much as I can say — anything else would be speculation.”