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Proposed Mat-Su Valley coal lease sale may get public comment period extended

Suzanna Caldwell

A proposed coal-mining lease sale in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley has some of the region's most remote residents worried they aren't getting a chance to comment on the state offering.

On Tuesday, somewhere between 40 and 70 people showed up to the meeting at Wendler Middle School in Anchorage to discuss the proposed Canyon Creek Coal Lease Sale. The 20-square-mile parcel is located near Skwentna, an Iditarod Trail checkpoint and seasonal community of about 40 people. The community, situated about 70 air miles from Anchorage, is not connected to the road system and is only accessible via plane, boat or snowmachine.

And with the meeting being held in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, those who live near the proposed mine don't feel they aren't getting a chance to be heard when it comes to what the state plans to do with the lease.

“You don't have a meeting without the most important people not represented,” said Lori Brinker, a longtime Skwentna area resident who was present at the Tuesday night meeting. She said only five Skwentna-area residents attended the meeting.

Brinker said the community hasn't gone through “freeze-up” yet. That means the small plane runways have too much snow on them for planes with wheels to land, yet at the same time, the ice on area rivers and lakes used as runways isn't thick enough for small planes to land, essentially isolating most of the community.

Brinker said the state mailed out notices on the proposed lease sale to homeowners in the region, but with freeze-up still happening, some members of the community haven't been able to get to the local post office for weeks.

“I've only run into five people who have gotten notices,” she said.

Public comment on the proposed lease ends soon -- Wednesday, Nov. 21. The meeting at Wendler is the only one scheduled, however on Thursday Bill Cole, geologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources mining division, said he's taking into account the freeze-up season and may extend the public comment period. He said the decision will be made before Wednesday.

So far, Cole has received between 150 to 200 emails since the public comment period on the proposed lease sale began in October. He noted that many of those responses have been from organized groups.

Some in the valley worry that the Matanuska-Susitna Borough -- an area roughly the size of West Virginia -- will begin to look more like that state, known for its long coal mining history.

The lease area is only in its early stages. It's been surveyed for mineral quality, according to the state, and found to have high potential. A potential lease sale has been triggered by the interest of the company Alaska Energy Corporation.

After public comment period, the state will make a final decision on whether or not to allow a lease sale. Tim Leach, environmental director for Envision Mat Su, a valley based non-profit that advocates against coal development, said this is the only time a community can speak to one fundamental question.

“Should we develop this area for coal mining?” he said. “This is only time this question comes up (in the permitting process.)”

Leach said the mine could have multiple negative economic and health impacts in the region, including disruption of already teetering salmon stocks in the region.

Canyon Creek is the fourth coal lease to be considered in the Mat-Su Valley in recent years. Two controversial projects are located on the other side of the borough, near Sutton. One of them, Wishbone Hill, has found itself in litigation from anti-coal groups over the validity of its state-held permits.

Closer to Skwentna is the Chulitna coal prospect, an effort by PacRim Coal to build an 8-square-mile strip mine on the western side of Cook Inlet. Currently PacRim holds an exploration permit for the lease -- located near the small, remote communities of Beluga and Tyonek -- but has yet to submit a permit application to DNR.

If the Canyon Creek coal lease is sold, it would bring the total coal lease areas in the Mat-Su Valley to 33,000 acres.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com

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