Chuitna water reservation decision delayed until this fall
Alaskans will have to wait until fall to learn if salmon habitat prevails over a coal mine proposed at Upper Cook Inlet.
A decision due earlier this month by the state Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, has been delayed until after a public hearing later this summer, said Ed Fogels, DNR Deputy Commissioner.
At issue are competing water rights claims filed in 2009 by the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and PacRim Coal of Delaware and Texas. The coalition wants to protect spawning tributaries of the salmon-rich Chuitna River, dubbed the Kenai of the West Side; PacRim wants to dewater the streams and dig Alaska’s largest coal mine.
DNR received over 7,500 public comments in favor of water rights for salmon by the May 9 deadline.
It’s no surprise that the coal vs. fish face-off moves on to a hearing, as both sides want a final say.
“This will be a public hearing with testimony to be provided by individuals or groups who filed objection(s) to the reservation of water applications, or to the information and analyses produced by water resources section staff,” Fogels said via email, adding that the hearing details are being worked out.
Should DNR rule in favor of coal over salmon habitat, the decision will set an unsettling state precedent.
“It would be the first time in Alaska’s state history that we would allow an Outside corporation to mine completely through a salmon stream,” said Bob Shavelson, a director at Cook Inletkeeper. “And the sole purpose is to ship coal to China. It’s really a very dangerous precedent because if they can do it here in Cook Inlet, they will be able to do it anywhere in the state. It could soon be coming to a river near you.”
Cook Inletkeeper, along with the Coalition and Alaska Center for the Environment, requested the hearing. They objected to aspects of DNR’s analyses, such as including only coho salmon and using only dock prices to quantify the value of the entire Chuitna watershed.
PacRim spokesmen have argued for years that they can restore the salmon habitat after all the coal is extracted. PacRim data show that the first phase alone would remove and dewater 20 square miles of salmon habitat, dig down 300 feet and discharge seven million gallons of mine waste a day into the Chuitna River. The total project calls for extracting 12 million tons of low-grade coal per year for 25 years.
Dave Schade, DNR’s Water Resources Section Chief, agreed that the water rights decision is precedent setting, and that it comes down to “saying yes to one applicant, and no to the other.”
The hearing is scheduled for Aug. 21 at the U.S. Federal Building Annex in Anchorage. DNR’s Ed Fogels said a decision is expected on or before Oct. 9.
Two Alaskans will not be able to vote on cutting halibut bycatch when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council convenes the week of June 1 in Sitka. Council members Simon Kinneen of Nome and David Long of Wasilla are recused from voting due to financial conflicts of interest. Kinneen is vice president and quota and acquisitions manager for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp.; Long is a Captain and Fish Master for Glacier Fish Company.
Both will be able to participate in deliberations as the 11-member council (seven from Alaska counting the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region representative) grapples with reducing the more than 6-million pound halibut bycatch allowance in Bering Sea groundfish fisheries by up to 50 percent.
North Pacific Processors is poised to put pen to paper and purchase Inlet Fish of Kenai and Kasilof. Seafood.com reports that John Garner, chief operating officer of North Pacific, confirmed last week that the company is “in advanced talks to purchase Inlet Fish.” Inlet buys and processes salmon from Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Rivers.
The purchase would expand North Pacific’s processing plants to seven, including at Kodiak, Bristol Bay and Southeast Alaska. Garner said he is “optimistic about the future of Alaska salmon.”
Likewise, Alaskan-owned Cannon Fish Company opens its doors last weekend in Kent, Wash. The company was purchased in 2013 by the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, or APICDA, one of six western Alaska Community Development Quota, or CDQ, corporations. The CDQ program gives a percentage of all Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands fishing quotas to regional communities to enhance economic opportunities.
Cannon Fish is a high-end seafood processing and marketing company started in 1991 that caters to a nationwide network of retailers, restaurants, and specialty grocers. Most of the fish processed at Cannon is caught by fishing families from six Aleutian Island villages, said Larry Cotter, APICDA chief executive officer.
“It ties directly to our Alaska processing plants, Atka Pride Seafoods in Atka and Bering Pacific Seafoods at False Pass,” he added.
Off the radar
The appointment of U.S. Air Force veteran Bob Mumford to the state Board of Fisheries came as a surprise to most Alaskans. Gov. Bill Walker announced the news on May 20, crediting Mumford’s “vast range of experience in multiple fields as a commercial pilot, hunting instructor and state trooper, which has taken him all over the state.” Mumford, who lives in Anchorage, is a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife trooper, worked for 18 years on sport and commercial fishing enforcement and also has served on the state Board of Game.