By Sarah Hurst
For Mining News 

Options open for Chuitna coal project

Scoping meetings provide wide-ranging suggestions for EPA to consider as it prepares supplemental environmental impact statement


Last updated 10/29/2006 at Noon

Members of the public, particularly Native Alaskans, have made a wide variety of comments about the Chuitna coal project that is being proposed for the Cook Inlet area. Following a series of scoping meetings this summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a summary of public responses in October. The responses will be used to help prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement, which should be published in draft form by spring 2007.

A plan to develop the Beluga coal field, 45 miles west of Anchorage, was originally put forward in the 1990s and evaluated in an environmental impact statement. The project did not go ahead, and the latest proposal from developer PacRim Coal is substantially different from the first one, so the EPA decided that a supplemental EIS is necessary. The Beluga field contains about 1 billion metric tons of subbituminous coal and the life of the mine could be at least 25 years, according to PacRim Coal.

The Native village of Tyonek asked to be included in the project consultation process in February 2006, and after receiving that request the EPA contacted nine other potentially affected tribes in the Cook Inlet area, inviting them to participate. The EPA also received 370 "action alert" letters about the project, representing 78 percent of all the comments received during scoping. An "action alert" is a form letter with text that can be edited or added to by the individual writer. These letters were treated by the EPA as individual submittals. Many of them were from non-Alaska residents, who made up 35 percent of all the comments submitted.

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Some comments outside scope of project or agency authority

Some comments were eliminated from consideration in the SEIS because they addressed issues that were outside the scope of the project, or the EPA's authority, such as numerous questions about the project's contribution to global warming, a request for the EPA to take action to reduce the country's need for electricity, and a suggestion that the government should provide loan incentives to power plants to remove pollutants.

Specific comments that were eliminated included: "Armory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Energy Institute should be hired as consultants to bring an energy plant to this country"; "The devastation of coal mines in Kentucky caused (sic) should not be repeated in Alaska"; "Burning animal fat should be considered an alternative to burning coal as a fuel source"; "Keep Alaska beautiful for visitors and recreation"; and "The recent British Petroleum pipeline leak demonstrates the potential to damage the Alaskan ecosystem."

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EPA considering alternatives

This still leaves the EPA with a large number of very relevant comments, some of which have already helped to identify potential alternatives to the components of PacRim's proposed project. The EPA will be considering an alternative power line route along the access road from Beluga to Ladd Landing, alternatives to the location of the dock facility and bulkhead and dock design, alternative locations for the workers' camp, road and conveyor system to avoid impacts to wetlands, an alternative conveyor system design and alternatives to reduce the project's footprint to mitigate impacts to wildlife and fish habitat.

PacRim proposes a coal storage facility with a capacity of 500,000 metric tons to be located at the logistics site, with minimal storage at the mine. The EPA will also look at the alternative suggested in the original EIS - a facility with a capacity of 1.1 million tons located at the port site and 50,000 tons of storage capacity at the mine - as well as another alternative, a smaller capacity facility at the logistics site and a larger facility at the mine.

The logistics site in the current proposal would be at Ladd Landing, and would include a coal export facility for loading ocean-going coal transport ships. PacRim envisages constructing a bulkhead at Ladd. The EPA will also consider the alternative in the original EIS, which was a barge landing on the beach, and another alternative - using the existing Tyonek dock. PacRim also plans to construct a coal transport conveyor with an annual throughput capacity of 15 million metric tons, the same option that was in the original EIS. The EPA will now also consider transporting the coal by truck or rail.

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Subsistence, air quality concerns

At their scoping meetings, representatives of the EPA, other government agencies and PacRim Coal answered questions from local people. For example, according to the scoping response summary, the following answer was given to a question about whether blasting and explosives would be used in the mining operation: "Limited blasting supplies will be present at the mining area. Blasting of overburden and coal is not planned and only minor blasting supplies (are) required for fracturing large boulders in a portion of the overburden or to break large lumps of coal that may plug the chutes of the truck dump."

Brenda Trefon, a tribal environmental specialist with the Kenaitze Tribe, asked whether there would be an onsite power plant, suggested that the project was a way to try to get power to the Pebble mine, and asked if fishermen would be compensated for losses incurred due to the project. Native representatives from Tyonek said that the tribe's biggest concern was the drainage from Lone Creek to the Chuit River, an important resource for fishing and subsistence, and expressed concern about coal dust possibly causing asthma. "Tribal members do not want their lifestyle to change. They value the peace, quiet and food resources," local people said, according to the EPA's response summary.


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