Chuitna strip coal mine area in Upper Cook Inlet

Chuitna strip coal mine area in Upper Cook Inlet

ADF&G says Cook Inlet salmon habitat measure denied because protection laws are already in place
SEAFOOD.COM NEWS [The Cordova Times] by Margaret Bauman – April 22, 2013Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell has rejected a petition signed by more than 6,000 Alaskans asking for regulatory changes to prohibit coal mining activities in anadromous waterways, saying her agency can already do so if warranted.

Campbell’s comments came April 15 in a letter to Trustees for Alaska, which filed the legal petition in mid-March on behalf of four organizations seeking clear rules that ban large scale coal strip mining through salmon habitat, and providing Alaskans with public notice when fish habitat permits are processed. Trustees filed the petition on behalf of Cook Inletkeeper, the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, United Cook Inlet Drift Association, and Northern District Setnetters Association of Cook Inlet. Signers included 6,603 individuals, among them 6003 Alaskans, plus others residing in more than two-dozen other states, Belgium, Canada and Japan.

The controversy centers over the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine in Upper Cook Inlet, where PacRim Coal LLC is currently submitting permit applications to create the state’s largest coal strip mine. PacRim’s plan would set a historic precedent in Alaska as the first project in state history to remove miles of wild salmon streams from bank-to-bank, down hundreds of feet.

Most Alaskans cannot believe there’s no rule against completely mining through a wild salmon stream, and the petitioners’ proposed rule was designed to provide predictability to fishermen, consumers and industry to ensure no coal strip mining in wild salmon streams, Cook Inletkeeper and Chuitna Citizens Coalition officials said in a joint statement April 16.

The proposed rule also sought to make permits that impact salmon habitat visible to everyday Alaskans through public notice. “Ever since the Parnell Administration helped kill the Alaska Coastal Management Program in 2012, Alaskans have not received public notice on salmon habitat impacts where they fish, work or recreate,” said Dennis Gann of Cook Inletkeeper and Ron Burnett of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, in their joint statement.

The Anadromous Fish Act (AS 16.05.871) requires that an individual or government agency provide prior notification and obtain permit approval from ADF&G before altering or affecting the natural flow of a specified water body or fish stream.

Campbell said her agency already has the power to deny a permit for a specific activity if the plans and specifications for the activity are deemed insufficient for the proper protection of fish and game.

“ADF&G permit denials, when issued, are based on the activities’ site-specific proposed scope of work and the ADF&G conclusion that impacts to anadromous fish resources and their habitat cannot be sufficiently and properly protected,” she said in her letter to Trustees of Alaska, counsel for the petitioners. “For these reasons, ADF&G does not see the need to add the proposed section to the regulations.

Campbell also responded to the request for new subsections to the administrative code regarding a public notice and public comment process for the Habitat Division permit applications. She cited Article VIII, Section 10 of the Alaska Constitution, which requires prior public notice only for disposals or leases of state lands, or interests therein. The legislature has interpreted the constitution as not requiring the public notice and opportunity for public comment that petitioners seek for permitting activities under the authority of the Anadromous Fish Act, she said.

And, said Campbell, the proposed regulations are in direct conflict with the state’s Fish Passage Improvement Program (AS 16.05.891) for emergency situations and are contrary to the state’s actions to streamline the permitting functions of agencies.

Gov. Sean Parnell, meanwhile, signed legislation on the same day Campbell responded to Trustees for Alaska, establishing May 10 as Alaska Mining Day. The measure, backed by the Alaska Miners Association and the Council of Alaska Producers, was sponsored by Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage.

At the start of the 28th Legislature in January, the Parnell Administration introduced House Bill 77, a measure that would severely limit Alaskans’ rights to challenge temporary use water permits sought by mining interests for periods of several years or more. The measure, which was returned to the Senate Rules Committee, on April 14, would have deleted an individual’s right to reserve sufficient water to maintain stream flow to protect fish and wildlife habitat.

All but a few of the several dozen people testifying on the bill to the Senate Finance Committee were strongly opposed to passage.

Former Alaska State Senate President Rick Halford told the committee that the current system for in-stream applications has worked and there have not been problems with it. “The system is not broken; it is not out of balance,” he said.

Environmental groups called Parnell’s legislation an effort to restrict citizen access to the judicial branch.