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November 21, 2009

Alaskan Grandmother Organizes to Stop Coal Plant


Folks who know Judy Heilman like to call her "Grammy Beluga." She's a grandma all right, and the "Beluga" part comes from the name of the tiny community on the west side of Alaska's Cook Inlet where she lives with her husband Larry in the log home he hand-built for their retirement. That's Judy and Larry, below, at Beluga's 4th of July celebration this year.


Beluga and the neighboring native village of Tyonek are less than 50 miles as the crow... er, bald eagle flies from Anchorage, but there is no road access. The area is home to moose, black and brown bears, and wolves, and the Chuitna River supports all five wild Pacific salmon species.

Photo courtesy of Cook Inletkeeper

But the community got its name from the Beluga whales, above, that calve, feed, and raise their young in the waters of Cook Inlet, below. Officially a "near-threatened" species, the beluga subpopulation in Cook Inlet is considered critically endangered and is protected under the Endangered Species Act. "There aren't many places left in the world like this," Heilman says.

Photo by Brendan McMurrer

But PacRim Coal, a Delaware-based company backed by Texas investors, is proposing one of the largest strip mines in the country on a tributary of the Chuitna River, below. If the Alaska Department of Natural Resources approves the project, it will be the first time the state has allowed a mining company to directly mine through a known salmon-bearing stream.


Heilman and others are spearheading local opposition to the mine. "We're trying to protect our homes, our lifestyles, and the fish and game that we depend on," Heilman says. "The vast majority of people in Beluga and Tyonek oppose the mine because it will destroy our way of life. If we don't recognize this unique and fragile area as unsuitable for coal strip mining, no place in Alaska will be safe." Below, the beach at Beluga.


PacRim plans to extract 300 million tons of coal over 25 years. By its own estimates, it would discharge more than 7 million gallons of mine area runoff daily into salmon-bearing tributaries of the Chuitna. The project would also entail construction of roads, a coal transport conveyor 12 miles long, housing for 350 workers, an air strip, a 2-mile-long trestle into Cook Inlet, and an artificial island for loading coal ships in the middle of a rich salmon fishery.

Map courtesy of Cook Inletkeeper

The Heilmans and their neighbor, commercial fisherman Terry Jorgensen, helped form the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, made up of local residents, landowners, hunters, fishermen, and recreationists. The group, which Judy and Terry co-chair, has staged rallies, set up booths at sporting shows, handed out literature at state fairs, written letters to politicians, visited the state capital, gotten the Chuitna listed as one of America's Top Ten Endangered Rivers, and posted brochures near fishing areas to alert people to what's going on.

After PacRim released studies claiming that it could restore the streams and salmon runs after mining ceased, the coalition, Trustees for Alaska, and Cook Inletkeeper responded with studies of their own. "We knew PacRim's study was a farce," says Heilman, "so we called in scientists and fish, water & stream biologists, and they concluded that if you mine 5,000 acres along 11 miles of creek, it will no longer be a salmon spawning stream. This is just not the place for a coal mine."


Heilman points out that the area is largely tundra and bogs. "There's no way they can pump 7 million gallons of mine waste a day out of the mine area and put it in filtration ponds where it will filter back nice and clean into the stream. The area is already saturated. How much water will a sponge hold before it starts running over?"

In 2007 the Chuitna Citizens Coalition petitioned the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to designate the land within the Chuitna River watershed unsuitable for coal miningunder the state's mining law the agency must designate an area unsuitable if reclamation is not technologically feasible. When DNR's director ignored the petition, calling it "frivolous," and moved ahead with the permitting process, the coalition filed an appeal in state Superior Court challenging DNR's decision not to consider their petition.

They then kept up the heat by contacting state legislators, members of Congress, and Governor Palin, stressing the importance of transparency "to let the common person know what's going on in their back yard." Coalition members have given testimony at public meetings with the DNR, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Kenai Borough Assembly, and set up meetings in Heilman's shop in Beluga between agency officials and local fishermen.

After studying PacRim's plans, the CCC has found numerous flaws and problems and brought them to the attention of the agencies. The planned export facility is in the middle of commercial fishing sites and both salmon and beluga migration routes. Agencies are being pushed to look more closely at salmon habitat restoration, water quality, and air quality, among other issues.

"PacRim has been told to go back and rework their plans because the Corps of Engineers said there's no way they can build this huge development without harming the salmon fishery and the beluga whales," Heilman says. "The coal that would be mined here would be burned in Asia and come back to us as carbon or mercury. That's not what I want for my kids and grandkids. We have to change our ways and move in a different direction."


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