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Sierra magazine
The Great Alaska Coal Rush

Wilderness lovers have fought for decades to protect the moose, salmon, and sublime vistas of America's "last frontier" from the ravages of oil development. Now America's coal companies want to leave their earth-scraping marks across the state. Appalachia in Alaska, anyone?

By Tomas Alex Tizon


Alaska's "coal fields"? An active coal lease borders both sides of the Matanuska River (and the parallel Glenn Highway, a national scenic byway) for approximately three miles near King Mountain.

From Anchorage it takes just 20 minutes on a single-prop Cessna to reach this sprawl of bog and forest where no road leads, a place so remote that moose and brown bear have not yet learned to flee at the sight of a human being. Thousands of ponds dot the terrain, and between them run streams rich with all five species of wild Pacific salmon. The streams feed into the upper Chuitna River, which empties into the northwestern waters of Cook Inlet.

One afternoon this spring, Larry Heilman, snow falling hard against his face, rode a snow machine through the area, winding between thickets of spruce. When he spotted a female moose and her calf about 30 yards away, he slowed to an idle. The moose raised their heads. Heilman watched for a minute and moved on.

"What's it going to do to them?" he asked back at the cabin. This whole area on the inlet's upper west side is prime moose-breeding ground. What's going to happen to this region that he and his wife, Judy, have grown to cherish?

A short distance from their cabin, just off the Chuitna River, developers want to build one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the country--and the largest ever in the state. The main developer, PacRim Coal, a Delaware company backed by Texas investors, would like to begin construction in 2010 and within two years strip away 5,000 acres of wild, including 11 miles of Middle Creek, a Chuitna River tributary.

If Alaska's Department of Natural Resources approves the project, it will mark the first time the state has allowed a mining company to legally plow through a known salmon-bearing stream. The company will pour an average of 7 million gallons of mine wastewater per day into Chuitna River tributaries.

PacRim hopes to extract 300 million tons of low-grade coal over 25 years, most of it destined for the Far East. Fluctuating oil and gas prices and growing Asian economies, with their need to fuel new factories and power plants, have stirred renewed interest in coal, a relatively cheap but dirty energy source that declined in the 1990s.

Alaska holds an estimated 5.5 trillion tons of coal, roughly one-half of the nation's--and one-eighth of the world's--reserves. Even many Alaskans, who tend to dwell on oil and natural gas issues, do not realize the extent of the state's coal resources, which developers hope will help meet the worldwide demand, projected to rise 1.7 percent a year for the next two decades.

The main impediment to mining in the state has always been the rugged terrain and frigid temperatures. The bulk of Alaska's coal deposits lie above the Arctic Circle, where there is little infrastructure and almost no workforce. But given greater demand and better technology, developers are now considering what was once thought unthinkable.


Beluga residents Larry and Judy Heilman and their three Australian shepherds (above) found the good life along the salmon-rich waters of the Chuitna River--and want to protect it and Alaska's ubiquitous moose (below) from the coal miners' draglines.
The proposed Chuitna mine and numerous other in-the-works coal projects would launch what some are calling the "Alaska coal rush." Such an explosion of coal production would bring to the so-called Great Land an extraction industry that has devastated vast portions of the Lower 48. The effects would be many and far-reaching: from clearing out wilderness and infringing on the outback lifestyles of many residents to an acceleration of the epic disintegration of ancient glaciers brought on by warming climates. At stake are not only Alaska's land and waters but also its allure as the country's last true frontier.

Coal-fired plants are one of the biggest generators of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global climate change, which affects polar regions more than others. Studies have shown that Alaska has warmed an average of 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years, compared with the national average of 1 degree Fahrenheit. Higher temperatures here have already caused salmon streams to warm, permafrost and sea ice to melt, glaciers to recede, and coastlines to erode. "If there is a ground zero for global warming in the United States, it is Alaska," said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, an Anchorage-based environmental organization.

Coal-fired power plants are also the main anthropogenic source of mercury, a toxin that accumulates at higher rates in polar regions. In 2007, Alaska officials for the first time issued an advisory recommending reduced consumption of certain kinds of fish found to be contaminated. Large-scale coal mining and the resulting mercury concentration could hurt commercial fisheries worldwide; Alaska's $5.8-billion fishing industry accounts for more than 60 percent of all seafood harvested in the United States.

"There is thick irony there," said Shavelson. Alaska's shipping coal to China--the largest (and still growing) emitter of greenhouse gases in the world--would contribute to two global phenomena that would damage Alaska more than other states. If the Chuitna coal mine goes in, Shavelson said, the fate of the Chuitna River will be sealed. "The river will die," he said, along with the salmon and Dolly Varden trout that swim and spawn in it. And much of the surrounding ecosystem--covering 60 square miles--will collapse, putting in jeopardy otherwise healthy populations of moose, bear, wolf, lynx, and dozens of bird species, including bald eagle, sandhill crane, and trumpeter swan.

Then there is the matter of the people who live here.

The Alaska Native residents of Tyonek, whose Athabascan ancestors settled in the area thousands of years ago, depend on fish and game for sustenance. Ten miles up the road, the mostly non-Native residents of Beluga, most of them transplants, have also arranged their lives around hunting and fishing. The two villages have had their differences over the years, but they are united in their opposition to the Chuitna coal mine.

"We're fighting for the land, for the region we love," said Judy Heilman. "We're also fighting for our lives. Hunting and fishing and being close to nature--this is what makes our lives."


Beluga fisherman Terry Jorgensen displays a local coho (above). "I'm marketing wild, pure, organic Alaska salmon, and how do I do that with coal dust on top of my salmon?" he told a reporter in 2007. A ship loads Usibelli coal in Seward (below).
The Heilmans live in a log cabin that Larry built by hand using spruce trees from their five-acre parcel. The cabin is elegant if a bit rough, with uneven logs and add-ons that go this way and that. Three energetic Australian shepherds prowl the premises for unwanted visitors, namely moose, bears, and wolves. A long gravel driveway leads to the single unpaved road that connects the 86 parcels in the community of Beluga. On most are vacation or summer homes. Though only 45 miles from Anchorage and its 280,000 residents, the area feels every bit the Alaskan bush. It's what drew the Heilmans, who live here year-round.

Larry retired from welding and operating heavy machines in Anchorage, Judy from running a daycare center. Larry had been coming to the area since the 1970s to work and fish, but it wasn't until 1991 that the couple, high school sweethearts, planted permanent roots. At least the Heilmans thought they would be permanent. The coal mine would change everything, they believe, putting an end to Beluga as they know it. They've measured: The mine would be a mere nine miles from the edge of their property.

Besides destroying habitat, the mine would bring with it all the clatter of industry--people and machinery and cars and airplanes. Construction of the mine would require 300 workers, and operating it would require 350. Those workers would need food, housing, and transportation, which would mean more buildings, more roads, and more vehicles. The work could provide a temporary boon to nearby communities such as Tyonek, where unemployment nears 30 percent. The locals, though, have not shown a keen interest in the particular work involved.

The type of operation planned at Chuitna is a strip mine, in which large tracts of topsoil and subsoil are removed by drilling, blasting, and scraping to get at the coal seam underneath. Earthmovers uncover the seam, exposing open pits, then dragline excavators move in. The coal fragments from Chuitna would be transported via a 12-mile-long conveyor belt to a place called Ladd Landing on the shore of Cook Inlet. The coal would then be loaded onto a trestle traveling two miles into inlet waters, where supersize freighters--at a rate of 120 a year--would pick it up before heading to Asia.

Under one plan, the conveyor belt could run less than 400 yards past Ron Burnett's home. Burnett, a cabinetmaker from Anchorage, and his wife, Bobbi, spend half the year in Beluga. Like the Heilmans and almost all the other local property owners, Burnett has signed a petition against the mine. "I really hate to think about it," he said. This is a place so quiet that the sound of an eagle's cry can carry for miles. "We'll hear the belt," Burnett said. "Everyone here will hear it." The belt will likely run 24 hours a day. And while it will be partly covered, coal dust will be released into the air--by one estimate as much as 300 tons a year, or about 50 pounds an hour. Said one neighbor, "What's the snow going to look like?"


Angela Wade (left), environmental director for the Chickaloon tribe, and Randy Standifer Sr. (center), a commercial fisherman and member of the Tyonek Village Council, worry about the effects of mining on Alaska's waterways (right).

The holding area at Ladd Landing, where the trestle would begin, would require construction of a gravel island big enough to store as much as 500,000 tons of coal. Building the island would mean leveling the remnants of an abandoned Native village--potentially a valuable archaeological site--and destroying a half dozen commercial "set-net" operations, a type of fishing involving setting nets as far as 500 feet offshore.

Terry Jorgensen has been set-net fishing at Ladd Landing for 28 years, making a good income selling salmon to restaurants and markets in the Lower 48. "The coal company told me, 'You're going to be displaced. We'll cover displacement costs, but you need to get out,'" Jorgensen said. "They just have no respect. This area has been continuously fished since 1895, and they come here and just want to steamroll us. It's a nightmare scenario."

There's talk of rerouting the conveyor belt away from Beluga and closer to Tyonek, home to about 190 people, nearly all subsistence hunters and fishers. Like Beluga, Tyonek can only be reached by air or sea. Amid the cluster of colorful matchbox homes sit a bar, a school, and a tribal center. The tallest and best-kept building in town is the Russian Orthodox church, which stands atop a bluff overlooking the tribal center and, beyond that, the beach. A vast majority of residents--98 percent, according to a recent tribal survey--unequivocally oppose the coal intrusion. Residents tend to respond to all outside interests with caution: Outsiders have brought great devastation before, including smallpox in 1836 and influenza in 1918. Between the two epidemics, the Natives almost perished entirely. A memory of those events persists.

Riding around town in his pickup one afternoon with Judy and Larry Heilman, Tyonek resident Randy Standifer Sr. pointed out various places he worked and spoke of spots he hunted and fished. He was trying to illustrate what was at stake. Standifer was born and raised in Tyonek and is raising his own children here. He tried city life for a while but came to realize he liked the freedom of the bush.

"As soon as they come in, you know things are going to change," Standifer said of PacRim's proposal. "Pretty soon, we'll need permission to cross the creek or hunt in the pasture or use the road we've always used. We'll need permission to go to all these places that we've always just gone to. I don't want that. I don't want that for my children."

Native communities in other parts of Alaska face the prospect of coal operations starting up near them. In the far north, the Inupiat villages of Point Hope and Point Lay are a short distance from where coal interests are studying possible mining sites. Their region, known as the Northern Arctic Province, holds up to 4 trillion tons of coal, one of the largest known reserves in the world. In Alaska's south-central region, a Canadian company is exploring the prospects of extracting as many as 800,000 tons of coal just outside the quiet community of Chickaloon.

Angela Wade has talked and written about what happened to her people after an 1898 U.S. military expedition found a high-quality coal vein near the Chickaloon River. At the beginning of World War I, the U.S. Navy and private companies began mining the Chickaloon coalfields to fuel steamships that patrolled the Aleutian Islands. With the mines came infrastructure and thousands of non-Natives who, by sheer number, imposed their ways on the local people, who until then had led a seminomadic life of hunting and fishing, using various camps as seasonal villages.

The outsiders overharvested game and then implemented hunting restrictions the Natives could not or would not obey. Natives who followed their own hunting traditions risked jail. Pollutants from the mine killed off local salmon, the staple of the traditional diet. In place of salmon, Natives began to eat the new foods that came on the Alaska Railroad, foods rich in sugar and white flour. The too-quick transition to processed foods introduced an array of health problems.

Oral history indicates that about 800 Natives lived in Chickaloon village before the mass influx of whites. By the time the coal companies pulled out in 1922, fewer than 40 Natives remained. What was left after the coal mines shut down, Wade said, was "a veritable ghost town."

The village and region are still recovering. "You could call it a cautionary tale," Wade said. She is the environmental stewardship director for the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council and has worked for years to restore the area's salmon streams. Things were looking up until 2006, when the Vancouver-based company Full Metal Minerals leased more than 22,000 adjacent acres for coal exploration and development.

Many of Alaska's coal projects are proceeding without widespread public scrutiny. Few Alaskans are aware of them. The lack of attention plays in favor of the coal companies, said Cook Inletkeeper's Shavelson. "They want everything to go as quietly as possible," he said. Once the companies get a few projects through, such as the Chuitna mine, which is at the most advanced stage, the precedent allows for other projects to be developed.

Local mine opponents see Chuitna as the front line--and consider themselves underdogs because of their small number and remote location. But the residents of Beluga and Tyonek have started to forge alliances with outside groups. Chuitna activists now share information with residents of Chickaloon, Point Hope, and Point Lay. With prodding from Cook Inletkeeper, the Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers alliance named Chuitna one of the country's most endangered rivers. The publicity drew much-needed attention.

The designation, however, did not sway the courts or state officials. In 2007, the Chuitna Citizens NO-COALition, led by Judy and Larry Heilman, was unable to convince the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to designate the Chuitna River watershed "unsuitable for coal mining." The coalition took issue with PacRim's claim that, after all the coal was removed, it would be able to restore nearby streams and rivers to pre-mining conditions. The region's hydrology is so complex, the coalition argued, that, once destroyed, it would be impossible to restore. Both the Department of Natural Resources and the state court rejected the coalition's petition for "lack of sufficient supporting evidence." Undeterred, the Heilmans and their network have already started a new petition to designate Chuitna unsuitable for mining--this time assembling an abundance of supporting evidence. They plan to file the petition later this year.

Burnett, the Heilmans' neighbor, is helping the cause. He has seen it all before: the coal companies "promising prosperity but giving you dark, muddy water." Burnett was born in 1949 in Perry County, Ohio, where his grandfathers, uncles, and father worked in coal mines. Both of his grandfathers died of black lung. "There was cancer all over Perry County that couldn't be explained," Burnett said.

"Growing up, we had lakes and streams to play in," he continued. "The coal company told us the water would clean itself up in 20 years and the ponds they made to catch the runoff would make great fishing holes. Fifty years later, the water is still noxious. We didn't know what we know now: The coal company didn't care about the land, water, or people. That's why, here in Beluga, I'll do everything in my power--to my last dime and breath--to see that this company does not destroy what it has no right to destroy."

>> Read more: Coal in the Cold

Tomas Alex Tizon, who shared the Seattle Times' 1997 Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, is a former Los Angeles Times reporter. He lives near Seattle.

This article was funded by the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign.

Photos, from top: Tom Bol, Damion Brook Kintz, Clark James Mishler/Alaska Stock LLC, Dennis Gann/Cook Inletkeeper, Mark Newman/Lonely Planet Images, Terry Jorgensen, Carol Griswold, Clark James Mishler, Tomas Alex Tizon, Michael Criss; used with permission.

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