By Sarah Hurst
For Mining News 

Chuitna coal permitting process fires up

It's the second EIS to be prepared, but still the first time for development of coal resources in Alaska's Cook Inlet area


Last updated 7/30/2006 at Noon

Alaskans are taking their first look at proposals to develop the coal resources in the Cook Inlet area, as project developers attempt to complete the NEPA process for the second time. A previous design for the Chuitna coal project was evaluated in an environmental impact statement and permitted in the early 1990s, but it never got off the drawing board. Since then there have been substantive changes in the project design and in the regulatory requirements, so a new EIS will be prepared.

Public scoping meetings to discuss the project took place in Anchorage, Soldotna and the village of Tyonek in July. As expected, environmentalists expressed their opposition, and set netters also raised concerns about impacts on the fishing in Cook Inlet. The Chuitna project is in the Beluga coal field, about 45 miles west of Anchorage. The project includes a surface coal mine, 12-mile mine access road, coal transport conveyor, employee housing for 200-250 people, airstrip facility, logistics center and a coal export terminal. The coal export terminal would include a 10,000-foot trestle constructed into Cook Inlet to load ocean-going ships.

The developer, PacRim Coal, predicts a minimum 25-year mine life, according to scoping documents published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Beluga field contains about 1 billion metric tons of sub-bituminous coal. No coal has been produced in the region before, and except for the Beluga power plant, owned and operated by Chugach Electric Association, there is no existing supporting infrastructure. A 4.5-mile-long 138-kilovolt power line would be constructed to connect the power plant to the mine access corridor.

Two road corridors being considered

Two road corridors are currently being considered for the project, the North Ladd access corridor and the Ladd access corridor. The coal transport conveyor would have an annual throughput capacity of 15 million metric tons. The conveyor belt would be covered on the top and one side with a weather hood to protect the coal from moisture and wind. The open side would permit visual inspection of and access to the rollers for maintenance. Whenever the conveyor crosses streams, it would be partially enclosed on the underside to prevent coal or dust from entering the stream.

The coal stockyard would have the capacity to store 100,000 to 500,000 metric tons. It would be contained within a graded foundation and surface water collection ditches. Surface water would be routed to two sediment ponds, where suspended solids would be removed to meet discharge limitations before being discharged to Cook Inlet.

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One issue that is likely to figure prominently in the permitting process for the Chuitna project is the status of the estimated 326 beluga whales in Cook Inlet. Conservation groups are calling for the whales to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, and if this occurred, all industrial development in the area would be subject to additional restrictions.

EPA selects contractor for Chuitna's EIS

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has selected ENSR as the third-party contractor for preparation of the supplemental environmental impact statement for the Chuitna coal project. ENSR is a global provider of environmental and energy development services to industry and government with 1,700 employees and 70 worldwide locations, operating in Alaska since 1977.


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