Chuitna And The Curse Of Coal

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The Carrs grocery store in Anchorage is always bustling at 7am on a Saturday in August. SUVs and pickups with boats in tow crowd the parking lot, and bleary-eyed women and men stand on line at the coffee bar clad in Xtra-Tuff rubber boots and Carhartt jackets. That is Alaska.

Stone island Black LambI lean over the refrigerator case and grab a twin-pack of hard-boiled eggs in a small plastic box. “You goin’ fishin’?” a burly, moustached man asks me with a twinkle in his eyes. Sensing my confusion, he points at the eggs, “That’s boat food!”

I laugh. “It is airplane food, actually,” I explain. “I am flying across the Inlet today.”

He knows because he lives here that I’m not talking about a giant commercial flight. I will be flying in a small prop plane, and landing on some gravel bar or beach or air strip. He asks the following logical question, “Silvers?”

It’s silver salmon season, and a lot of the boats in the parking lot are on their way to bring their owners to rivers, streams and bays for the annual ritual – conquest and consumption of the delicious and acrobatic fish. Silvers are as much fun to catch as they’re to eat.

“No, I’m doing a fly-over of the proposed site for the Chuitna coal mine,” I explain. Blank stare. I can tell right away that like most Anchorage residents, he has not heard of the massive development project just across the body of water that he sees every day. I’ve also now broached the subject of mining, which signifies that the “jobs vs. tree huggers” meme has just been introduced into this early morning conversation. Alaskans love pristine wilderness, but many even have an paradoxical aversion to “greenies,” that are loosely defined as anyone who thinks they know what’s best for other people at the expense of “progress.” It is a reckless move on my part, but I’m too sleepy to overthink it, so I lay my cards on the table.

“The point is to maintain it so people can continue to go fishing over there, and so there will still be fish to get,” I smile.

“Well, good luck,” he says with raised eyebrows, and an expression I couldn’t read. Was he just being polite? Had he pegged me as a “greenie?” Did he roll his eyes behind my back? I wasn’t sure.

Half an hour later the engine of the six-seater single-prop Cessna 207 roars to life at Merrill Field. We lift off effortlessly and bank to the left, heading across the silty grey-blue waters of Cook Inlet – home to commercial fisheries, endangered beluga whales, and small coastal communities. A mere 20 minute flight from Anchorage and you’re in a unique world – Alaska’s largest city on one side, and complete wilderness on the opposite. The Inlet is flanked on both sides by mudflats of flour-fine glacial sediment by which tides have carved branched channels and rivulets that look just like the impressions of great gnarled trees. In late August, the sunshine begins to take on a golden quality, and leaves and tundra have begun their gentle change from the emerald green of summer to the burnished yellows, and deep reds of fall. My mission today, with filmmaker Zach Roberts, is to help with the preliminary work for a documentary film about the biggest environmental issue in Alaska that nobody has ever heard of. PacRim Coal, a Delaware company funded by Texas investors, and Barrick Gold, headquartered in Ontario Canada, combined hold leases to about sixty thousand acres of land (much of it coastal, riverfront, and wetlands) that promise to yield an estimated 1 billion metric tons of low-quality sub-bituminous coal that will be strip mined, crushed, shipped to Asia, burned and returned to Alaska in the type of acid and particulates that may ride the prevailing winds back across the Pacific to rain out on ocean, field, stream and forest of the land from which it came. Such would be the circle of life for this particular fossil fuel. The Chuitna coal mine would be the largest within the state, and the first large-scale mining operation in Alaska to be permitted to mine directly through a productive salmon stream. The plan today is to fly across the mouth of the Chuitna River and upstream, seeing where the massive pyramids of coal will sit, where the conveyor belt will run to the enormous offshore island that can load coal on to ships bound for Asia, and what areas will be affected by the massive development project, because the toxic byproducts of the mine make their way into the waters of Cook Inlet.

Our other flight companions are Ron Burnett and his wife Bobbi. They will act as our tour guides for the day. Owners of a cabinet shop in Anchorage, they have a house within the little town of Beluga (population 23) which extends to the shore of the Chuitna River. Ron says they have plans to retire there, “if we do not get choked out by coal dust” – an understandable caveat. Ron is a pilot himself, and adds to the ranks of twinkly-eyed men which might be populating my day. It soon becomes apparent that he knows this area just like the back of his hand. He names every ridge, every river, every rivulet, and each lake. “That’s Goat Lake,” he says. “It did not have a name, so we gave it one. Roger Weber used to have goats, and he’d bring dead ones over to the corner of the lake, for the coyotes and the wolves to eat.” He chuckles, and I believe that is pretty much as good a reason as any to call a lake. Bobbi, a quiet, observant redhead sits in the back seat, easily spotting moose out the window and pointing them out as we pass overhead. We touch down as smooth as butter on the gravel airstrip in Beluga. “You’ve got done this before, have not you?” I say into the microphone on my headset. “Nope, that is my first day,” Bledsoe teases. “You’ve just never had survivors,” jokes Ron Burnett, and all of us laugh. Mostly.

~Bobbi Burnett at “the terminal” of the Beluga Air Strip Ron goes to the lineup and grabs our ride – a big brown extended cab pickup with large cracks across the windshield that looks like it has been through a war that ended before I was born. “This is Beluga Brownie,” he says with affection. “Picked it up 19 years ago for 375 bucks, and it still starts every time.” That is all that counts in rural Alaska. This can be a no-frills place, where the one question that needs answering is, “Does it work?” The elements should not kind to things manufactured from metal, and functionality is the rule. In this world, Beluga Brownie is a treasure.

~Ron Burnett in his home We have got miles to go before our return flight in just some hours, so we alter vehicles and head down the road. Bobbi takes Zach and i in an open 6-wheeler, with a bench seat. Ron leads the way on a four-wheeler. Our first stop is the waterfront residence of Terry and Lyn Jorgensen. He’s a commercial fisherman with a fish site that has been in continuous operation since 1896, and by the local Native Tyonek people for thousands of years before that. Their home too, is self-built with a stunning garden, and found treasures everywhere. Out the window Cook Inlet glistens in the sunshine, and the one sign that there’s anyone else on the face of the Earth is the distant hazy grey silhouette of an oil platform five miles off the coast. We sit in the living room and share a box of donuts brought by the Burnetts from Anchorage – a rare treat. ~Zach Roberts, the Burnetts and Lyn Jorgensen Where Terry Jorgensen fishes is one among the only areas of deep water nearby. Now, PacRim plans to construct a 400×600-foot metal island to offload coal exactly one foot from where his lease ends. “This coal company” as Jorgensen calls it, is ready to put a conveyor literally right over his head. Right on the beach where he fishes, he says, there will be huge pyramids of coal weighing 500,000 tons each that can sit and look ahead to super tankers to haul them to China.

“They admit that all of the beaches will probably be black, and the neighborhood will probably be black. There isn’t any way around it.” Jorgensen sounds tired. “What most of us are worried about is the river. The Chuitna River is worth saving. A 3rd of the water that goes into the river goes to be diverted or pumped out each day and that is just going to destroy it. So for the Tyoneks who subsistence fish on that river, and all the locals who fish on that river,… that is what’s got us probably the most concerned. Jeez…why are we going to mine through salmon streams?” There are answers to that question, of course, and all of them involve corporate profit, but none of them are answers people on the side of the fish want to listen to.

Pac-Rim has promised that when it is throughout, they’ll clean it all up and stock the river with more salmon and will probably be “even better” than before, Terry Jorgensen tells me. Lyn adds, “That’ll be about 100 years from now.” Little comfort, especially considering there’s no record of that type of restoration ever having happened before.

The trail The path to the beach by Terry Jorgensen’s fish site On the other side of the river is the Native village of Tyonek (population 199), “All the people that have lived there for generations – it will probably be the demise of them,” says Terry, his head down. “I’ve heard their comments – If this goes in, it is poison. We do not want to live where there’s poison. It is sad. They’ve lived here a very long time.”

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the commercial fishing industry in Alaska crashed, even in areas like Upper Cook Inlet that were unaffected by the spill. Nobody wanted Alaskan fish, and prices went through the floor. The Tyoneks traditionally held about 25 commercial fishing permits before “Exxon put everybody out of business,” says Jorgensen. “And like most coastal people, if you don’t have commercial fishing, you do not have employment. There’s nothing to do. You either work for government or you’re employed with the fish. And what’s great now, within the last three years, we finally got the tenders back. The worth of fish is up a lot, in comparison with what it was. I think there were as much as 14 of them out this year, and so they’re so happy to be fishing. One night, I was waiting to unload, and a Tyonek boat came up, stuffed with kids. One girl was maybe 15, big smile on her face, and her Dad’s been catching all these fish… Should you go and talk to them, they’re so happy. To us it’s earning money, but to them it’s an entire bunch of things we do not understand very well. And that was the happiest boat.

~Terry Jorgensen Because the Jorgensens talk more about what their land will appear like, and the noise of the helicopters that disrupts the traditional patterns of the beluga whales, Terry gets up to show me a letter he received from an expert land manager, on behalf of PacRim. He reads it aloud, “During a routine examination of the relevant State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources Case File, it appears that you’ll want financial assistance in displacement costs relative to locating a brand new site.”

He shakes his head in disbelief. “So, I called this guy up and told him we didn’t want to move.”

“This has been happening for quite some time,” ponders Lyn, “and it still hasn’t reached a wider audience, and that amazes me, because it’s so near home,” referring to the fact that this area is so close to Anchorage, which boasts about half the population of the state. “But nobody seems to know anything about it. You ask people in Anchorage and they are saying, ‘Huh? Where’s that? Never heard of it.’ Nobody seems to register that this is definitely going to happen, unless they shout about it.”

The lease area for the primary phase of the project, I learn, is nearly as big as the complete Anchorage bowl, and the pit will probably be mined 350 feet deep.

Ron dutifully checks his watch and tells us it’s time to maneuver on.

~The Heilman Clan by the garden We get a tour of the gardens, which are breathtaking. Vines of orange trumpet flowers climb arches and trellises. The hum of insects is everywhere but happily they all seem much more interested in the flowers than the humans. Chickens cluck in their coop. Purple poppies and larkspur bloom, and Judy wonders aloud if her second crop of lettuce will make it before frost. “Worth a try,” she says with an optimistic smile that lights up her face.

The Heilmans have lived here for many years now. “We have got a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears in this place,” Judy tells me. Their house is about 2 miles from the proposed conveyer belt, and nine miles from the location of the open pit. Forty percent of the realm of the open pit location is taken into account wetlands. “After they went up there on the lookout for gravel, they couldn’t dig for 10 feet anywhere around without hitting water,” Larry says. Further exploration of the area early in the year revealed the existence of artesian wells. With a purpose to mine the coal, the heaviest deposit of which is 350 feet below the surface, PacRim must “de-water” the realm all the way down to 400 feet, to allow equipment in. PacRim says that the project will affect the water table so far as fifteen miles away from the pit in every direction. Not only will the shallow wells that residents use be affected, but so will the whole watershed of the Chuitna River. Almost eleven miles of productive salmon stream with strong runs of king salmon and silver salmon might be completely wiped out by the mine.

And it isn’t just the local fish within the Chuitna area that will be affected, Larry jogs my memory. Local sport fishermen and tourists flock, yearly, to rivers up the inlet – the Deshka, the Little Susitna, the Yentna, the Talkeetna, and dozens more.

“All those fish can have to come past Tyonek, through the polluted water that comes down into Cook Inlet. All those fish should swim through this ‘mixing zone.’ Are they going to make it? After which they should swim back to spawn.” I’m wondering how excited sport fishermen and tourists might be to spend the money on fishing licenses, gear, and even plane tickets to come back catch salmon which were swimming through a bath of hydrocarbons and toxic runoff.

“You’d think the fishing industry would really be hammering this,” Judy muses. They’re not. Yet. We’re working on it.

“And what’s going to happen to the children in Tyonek? They haven’t got a method to get out. I always think about the kids. What are they going to do?”

~The mouth of the Chuitna River “We get the feeling from them that they are getting increasingly more concerned and scared that their way of life is getting ready to go out the door if this goes through,” says Larry. “Why eliminate salmon for coal? Think through the years how many hundreds of those who river has fed, and how many hundreds of thousands of people it would feed if it’s just left alone.”

The Heilmans have sent many letters and emails to the men at the top of this coal pile, Richard Bass and Hubert Hunt, the wealthy Texas investors who own this project. To this point, they have not heard back. Bass particularly seems to have inspired anger from the residents here. He’s been here several times, and even visited the little general store. But never has he done what Zach and i are doing today – talking to people.

Bass owns the Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah, which has more than one million visits a year, and he has been the recipient of several awards for environmental excellence as it relates to the resort. An outdoorsman, Bass has climbed the best peaks on all seven continents. The Sheldon Coleman Great Outdoors Award, considered one of a protracted string of awards he has received is “presented to an individual whose personal efforts have contributed substantially to enhancing outdoor experiences in America.”

Those in Beluga note that this project will certainly not “enhance” the outdoor experience of anyone. There may be an ongoing effort to urge Bass to divest his interest within the PacRim project, and spend his money instead on some form of energy project that won’t devastate communities, the environment, and the salmon.

“In his area down there he gets environmental awards all the time. Why can he come up here and dirty our back yard?

“In our back yard we’ve got plenty of energy. We’ve got gas, we have got thermal, there’s tidal out here in the Inlet, if they would just get their butts in gear. Put their money there instead of putting it on this dirty energy. It’s simply because politicians and the dirty coal guys are shaking hands – got their hands in each other’s pockets, and they simply will not let go. It is got to change. Us little guys all know it. Why in the Hell do not the big guys know it? Why don’t they do something about it? They. I guess we’re the they. We need to do it. We’re the they, I assume.”

The Heilmans, and the opposite people I’ve met today have been trying to get the message out. They’ve talked about the subject of this mine a lot. They’ve answered many questions, but I can tell they’ve never answered the one I ask next as Zach films.

“So, if Richard Bass finally ends up seeing this, since he’s not answering your emails, what would you tell him?”

The Heilmans both laugh, imagining the scenario. And then Judy goes silent and thinks for a moment. What would she tell him? She levels her eyes on the camera and speaks to it as though she were sitting in a chair across the desk from Richard Bass in his office at the Snowbird Lodge.

“Mr. Bass you’re a big damned hypocrite. How in the hell can you sit down there in your fancy house and your Snowbird Lodge, and get these awards and not even come up here and see how its going to affect our lives and our area? How are you able to think that that is the proper thing to do – to ruin a salmon stream, ruin the fish, the water and the air. And the way many people’s lives will be affected by it? And you sit down there and also you cannot even answer a damned letter?” Her voice trembles, her eyes have stuffed with tears of anger and frustration, and she turns and walks away from the camera for a minute.

After she collects herself, she goes on – “Do these little children, these kids who’re being raised here… do they mean anything? He’s got grandkids. Would he want that in his back yard? Does he want his grandkids breathing the coal dust and having to quit fishing within the rivers next door? I just think that families are damn more important than putting coal within the rivers and in our lungs.”

She loves this place with desperation, and it shows.

The people in Beluga are here because they choose this life – living in tandem with the elements, where gas is $6.50 a gallon, and if you want eggs for breakfast, or chicken for dinner it will take more hands-on involvement than picking up a package within the grocery store. They, and their neighbors in Tyonek have a relationship with the land, their homes, the weather, the fish, the berries, that many people will never know.

The day is ideal. It’s been a record summer for rain but today there is sunshine, cool breeze, and as we come to a stop and turn engines off, we hear the simultaneous sound of gentle waves and gentle slow river. Bobbi tells me that Ron likes to return to the beach and search for agates among the many pebbles. Additionally they come here for picnics and cookouts, and to simply be. Small planes land on this beach when the tides are right, and the pilots and passengers fish the Chuitna. I tell them I am unable to consider a better place to do it. Chasity is busy on the lookout for interesting stones, and her job is easy. We start comparing. I discover a pink one that matches her rubber boots. She finds a square one, the color of a chalk board. I tell her that I’ve heard that the grey ones with one white stripe are lucky. Her eyebrows go up. Larry walks over, and i remark on the great thing about the spot. “Now remember,” he says and sweeps his hand across the view, “this is all going to be black.” I feel like I’ve just been doused with a bucket of frigid Cook Inlet water. For a quick moment, it was just a day on the beach, and I might almost forgotten. But, yes – it will all be black. The sand, the stones, the trees and the river, and no children will likely be able to tell the difference between agate and basalt, and nobody will have barbeques, or race down the beach on four wheelers. And nobody will likely be fishing here for sport, or for their livelihood, or for his or her survival.

~Zach Roberts photographs the Chuitna I look across the Inlet to the Anchorage side. I feel like someone on the moon looking back at Earth. I can see across Cook Inlet from my kitchen window, and now I can pinpoint exactly where my house is from this beach. I’ve often washed dishes and looked across to this side, wondering what’s over here. Now I do know. And then I realize that I, like most of Anchroage, might be able to truly see the effects of this mine each day.

As we leave the beach and head back up the steep path, we stop for a moment to grab a pair pieces of coal. I look on the shiny black lump, and feel sad that this beautiful place is cursed. Back on the Heilman’s house Judy has laid out a spread fit for a king. Raw vegetables, sliced reindeer sausages, cheddar goat cheese from the Mat-Su Valley, crackers and homemade smoked Chuitna river salmon dip. Dessert is a blueberry shortcake with wild berries right from the Burnett’s yard, topped with whipped cream. Heaven.

Ron checks his watch again and keeps us on schedule. “They’ve launched,” he announces, meaning that pilot Mark has taken off from Anchorage and is on his technique to the airstrip to satisfy us. It is time to leave.

“It’s hard to give it some thought on daily basis,” Judy tells me as we head back to the six-wheeler, and she gives me a hug. “It can’t happen. Where would we go?” I have no answer.

Vast areas of cottonwood, and spruce pass beneath us, and provides way quickly to open marshy areas with stands of skinny water-loving black spruce trees. The theme of this place is water. It’s everywhere, in every form, from the glaciers that hang on the Alaska Range to our right, to the waters of Cook Inlet that flank us on the left, and every creek and river and pond and lake and marsh in between. This coal deposit couldn’t have picked a worse spot. The concept anyone could “de-water” this place seems patently absurd. Ron gives us running commentary of where the conveyor will probably be, and where the massive island will be, and where the piles of coal might be, and where the pit can be. We bank right and cross over a breathtaking canyon where the Chuitna tumbles over huge boulders and bends snakelike between red bluffs and around little islands covered with spruce, and I think to myself that this is one of the loveliest places I’ve ever seen. “That is all Barrick Gold’s land,” Ron’s voice crackles over the headphones. It is almost too much to bear, and this is barely my first trip here. What must it be like for Ron who has fished and hunted and flown and camped on this land for thus many years? What must or not it’s like for the Tyonek people whose ancestors’ bones still lie in undiscovered burial grounds on this soil – on this “lease area”, and whose very lives depend on the subsistence harvest of fish, and game, and berries similar to those ancestors have done for thousands of years? What must it be like for Judy, who worries concerning the children and thinks about the lack of her home every single day, and Larry who walks the beach and imagines what it would seem like black? And the Jorgensens who face the prospect of a conveyor belt over their heads dumping toxic coal that has an “escapement” into the environment of seven pounds per hour per acre of development? I think of Anson and Chasity some day telling their grandchildren that they remember the best way it used to be. We pass over the houses I’ve just visited, and the beach I’ve just walked, and the mouth of the Chuitna, flowing slow and green; swirling in dark bands because the fresh water mixes with the salt water of the Inlet. We cross the wetlands and marshes that are a patchwork of color and water, and dotted here and there with hunters’ duck shacks. The mine is just some miles from these wetlands, a critical stopover for hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl. What will the byproducts of the mine do to these coastal breeding grounds? My brain is spinning, trying to process all I’ve learned and seen today. It is not that I have not read quite a bit about Chuitna, but sitting in living rooms and meeting people for whom this place means everything, has made it hit home hard.

Back we fly across the slate grey water, and in minutes we’re back to civilization, passing over big tanks, and buildings and roads and the port of Anchorage. We pass by the BP building and baseball fields, and houses, and we touch down smoothly where we started – back at Merrill Field.

I recently saw a neighborhood elected leader with a button that said, “I (heart) Alaska’s Clean Coal,” and that i now hear the words of Judy Heilman in my ears. “There’s nothing clean about coal. It’s dirty from the time they take it out of the bottom, to the time they transport to the time they burn it. There’s nothing clean about it. It’s an ancient technology that should go.”

I give Bobbi a hug goodbye as Ron shakes his baseball-capped head and appears down at the ground. He asks the question that thousands have asked before – in West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and the Amazon, and the Niger Delta, and anywhere that corporate resource development and greed has overpowered the desire of local people – “Isn’t it amazing how you can love something so much, and someone else can are available and tear it up and they just don’t care?”

“Yes, it is,” I believe, and I’m overwhelmed by the few hours I have just spent in a place I look at every day out my kitchen window, but until now have never been able to touch.

“Now you write an excellent article,” he says.

Public comments on the proposed Chuitna coal project are being accepted for review by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Send comments to Russell Kirkham at or to 550 W. 7th Ave. #920, Anchorage, Alaska 99501. Deadline is September 24, 2010. has been extended to 5pm October 13, 2010.

~Chasity and the lucky rock *Please note that the Chuitna coal strip mine isn’t the CIRI Beluga coal gasification project. I am not commenting on that project, but need to avoid confusion for those who’re unfamiliar with Chuitna.

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Chuitna and the Curse of Coal

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