Chuitna mine application changes may muddy a lengthy process

A proposed coal mine near the village of Tyonek could move a step closer depending on a draft environmental impact statement expected to be released this month by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Changes in a state application for the Chuitna mine could complicate an already lengthy process.

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Although PacRim’s plan to mine coal near the Chuitna River on the West side of Cook Inlet has been in the works for years, an expected draft environmental impact study on the project is now behind schedule. Jason Berkner, a manager with the special actions branch of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ regulatory division said the EIS is on hold for the time being.

“Essentially, the project went into a hiatus mode,” Berkner said.

The Corps is waiting for portions of the state review process to catch up, so this is putting them behind schedule, according to Russell Kirkham, who manages Alaska’s coal regulatory program. Kirkham said in an email that Department of Natural Resources completed another round of review of PacRim’s application in late August. PacRim is currently working to address the state’s comments. Kirkham said he does not have an estimate on when they will be complete.

Berkner said if PacRim doesn’t provide the requested information by October 21, the EIS application is

“If we have 90 days of inactivity in this particular case, we would administratively withdraw the application,” Berkner said. “It is important to note that is an administrative process. The applicant can start working again on the project again at any time, once they provide the information that we require.”

Environmental activists opposed to the Chuitna mine are also waiting for the draft EIS to be released. Carly Weir, a program manager with Cook Inletkeeper said she’s in the dark as to the delay.

“This has been such a long process,” Weir said. At the beginning of this year, we assumed that we would see finally the draft application and documents and the public would have a chance to review this project. Unfortunately it is now October and we are looking at yet another delay and another year and uncertain future for this project and really the fate of the Chuitna watershed.”

Weir says her organization is against the mine because PacRim’s plan would mine through a salmon bearing tributary of the Chuitna. There is contention as to whether the salmon habitat can be restored after mining stops.

“That is precisely one of the questions that we are trying to get at through this EIS process,” Berkner said.

Weir said not having an EIS will stall the mine project for a while, but it is still a concern.

“We’d like to see the project’s books closed permanently,” Weir said. “The reason we’re looking at this project again, for ten years, since 2007 when the most recent rendition of the Chuitna coal mine project came up, is because the environmental impact statement and projects that was theoretically approved in the 1990s, was shelved due to low coal markets.”

The price of coal has tumbled during the past couple of years, but Dan Graham, a project manager with PacRim said in an email that PacRim is not focused on today’s prices. He says coal forecasts are strong to 2030 and beyond, and that “an investment like this looks to the long term.”

Graham said PacRim is in the process of responding to the state’s review, and that should be done this week. He said a 60 day state public comment period will coincide with a public comment period on the Corps’ EIS.