Athabascan Tribe Voices Concern Over Coal Mine

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The Chickaloon tribe is taking its concern over a proposed mine in the Mat Su Valley to an international audience. The Athabascan community near Palmer is opposed to a coal mine project being developed by the Usibelli Company that would access coal at a site called Wishbone Hill. The tribe filed a document presenting their concerns to the United Nations Independent Expert on water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, a Portuguese human rights expert appointed by the U.N Human Rights Council who will be taking testimony in the U.S and meeting with State department officials. This is her first trip to the United States. The Wishbone Hill issue is a test case in Alaska to see how the U. N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples might be used to intervene in development projects. President Obama declared U.S. support for the document in December.

The tribe claims the area of development is where they have traditionally hunted and fished, especially for potlatches and other important gatherings and ceremonies.
Harrison will be testifying in California to the U.N.’s de Albuquerque about the tribe’s fear that the coal mine will pollute Moose creek, a waterway the tribe has spent more than a million dollars successfully restoring as a salmon spawning creek. Harrison says bringing their case to an international audience should help pressure the U.S. to uphold the U.N. Declaration.

Harrison says he is hopeful that new DNR commissioner Dan Sullivan will come to Chickaloon and listen to the tribe’s complaint with the coal mining project. But he’s concerned about what he perceives as a problem with the state’s mandate of developing resources while keeping the environment clean.

During a recent broadcast of the statewide call in program Talk of Alaska, Commissioner Sullivan addressed this issue of a perceived dual mandate as he responded to callers from Chickaloon and Palmer who were concerned about the prospect of the Wishbone Hill coal development plan. One caller said her son’s school is within site of the project and she worries about the possibility of coal dust blowing into the school yard on windy days. Sullivan said resource development is critical for the future of the state.

Sullivan said when he testifies to the state legislature, he often starts by quoting article 8 Section 1 of the state constitution that reads in part that the state encourages development of resources for maximum use consistent with the public interest. He said it’s a broad statement but clearly one that was important to the delegates who wrote the constitution.

Commissioner Sullivan will be meeting with the Chickaloon tribal council on March 14th to hear their concerns. Another meeting is also scheduled for Sutton.

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