Compass: Proposed coal mines would be bad deals for Alaskans

FILE -- A piece of bituminous coal found at Wishbone Hill in Mat-Su. Evan R. Steinhauser

With the debate over coal strip mine proposals in Southcentral Alaska heating up, it's worth taking a moment to look at all of the facts around coal mining. When one takes a step back, it becomes clear that proposed coal mines threaten our way of life in Alaska while offering very little in return. Having been born and raised in Alaska, I know that enjoying the many wonders of this great state would not have been possible without the clean water and air that our home boasts in such magnificent quantities.

In her May 27 op-ed making the case for mining coal in Alaska, the head of the Alaska Miners Association, Deantha Crockett, quickly glossed over a piece of information integral to this debate: Alaska already mines more coal than it can use. This means that 100 percent of the coal from any new coal mine would be shipped directly to overseas markets, with no benefit to Alaska's energy market.

Taking a quick look at the proposed coal mines around the state demonstrates that coal companies want to profit at the expense of Alaskans. Not to mention the cost to creatures of the land and sea and their irreplaceable ecosystems. They hang precariously in the delicate balance between common sense and political process.

At the Chuitna River on the west side of Cook Inlet, the billionaire Hunt brothers from Texas propose mining directly through a wild salmon stream at PacRim Coal's proposed Chuitna Coal Project. If approved, this mine would fully remove 25 miles of salmon stream and discharge more than 7 million gallons of mine waste into the Chuitna River system every day.

When Larry and Judy Heilman retired to a hand-built log home in the small community of Beluga near the mouth of the Chuitna River, they imagined their retirement would be spent hunting, fishing and gardening in this beautiful and quiet community.

When they learned an Outside company wanted to mine through the stream where they teach their grandchildren to fish, Judy and Larry joined other residents in founding the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, a group dedicated to protecting the Chuitna River from PacRim Coal's proposed coal mine. Today, Judy and Larry work alongside others to raise awareness about the proposed mine and have generated thousands of petition signatures opposing mining through salmon streams. Unfortunately, the state of Alaska time and again has refused to stand up for salmon habitat by protecting the Chuitna River.

The Chuitna Coal Project would set a terrible precedent as the first coal mine in the state's history to mine directly through a salmon stream. Setting such a precedent would leave salmon streams across the state at risk and threaten our state's $5.8 billion fishing industry, which is responsible for an estimated 78,500 jobs.

We all want to create more jobs and economic prosperity for Alaskans. Unfortunately, proposals like the Chuitna Coal Project don't create jobs. Instead, they trade sustainable fishing and tourism jobs for unsustainable coal mining jobs, all while threatening our right as Alaskans to harvest wild salmon every year. In fact, a recent study from the Center for Economic Sustainability found that for every $1 the Chuitna Coal Project would generate in jobs, taxes and royalties, we stand to lose $3-$6 in environmental damage, reclamation costs and lost economic opportunity.

Judy and Larry are not the only ones having their lives disrupted by proposed coal mines. In the Matanuska Valley, residents are busy fighting three different coal mining proposals.

Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.'s proposed Wishbone Hill Coal Mine would strip mine within a half mile of homes and put 96 coal trucks on already-congested Matanuska Valley roads every day -- an average of one coal truck every 15 minutes.

Community members recently sent more than 500 comments to the Department of Environmental Conservation opposing Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.'s air permit for the Wishbone Hill Coal Mine. Releasing toxic coal dust into the high winds in the Matanuska Valley would be a dirty and dangerous combination.

Residents across Southcentral Alaska are standing together to fight proposed coal strip mines that threaten our salmon, our communities and our way of life. While the Alaska Miners Association may benefit from tearing up Southcentral Alaska to send coal overseas, one thing remains clear: Alaskans would not.

Willow King is a lifelong Alaskan from Kasilof, a commercial fisherman and a mother of three.