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State walks fine line in fight over Chuitna coal mine water rights

The state on Wednesday denied key water rights to groups fighting to protect a salmon stream from a controversial coal mining development in Southcentral Alaska.

Had those rights been granted, the Chuitna Coal Project might have had to abandon plans for extracting sub-bituminous coal for export to markets in Asia. Chuitna's plans call for destruction of Middle Creek, deemed an important salmon habitat by the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and other opponents.

Neither PacRim Coal, the Delaware-based company behind the mine, nor its opponents are particularly pleased by the Department of Natural Resources decision.

The department effectively gave a little to both sides by granting one application from the citizens coalition for water reservations in the creek, but denying two others. Water reservations ensure stream flows will be available for fish habitat and not be appropriated or diverted for another use.

In granting water reservations to Chuitna Citizens Coalition for the creek's lower stretch, the department made a bit of history. All the water reservations granted by the state since 1987 -- a total of 131 -- have gone to government agencies. This decision marks the first time the state has ever granted water rights to citizens.

But for the coalition and other opponents the decision was nonetheless disappointing because the department did not grant water reservations to the coalition in the upper and middle reaches of the creek, where the mine would be operating.

"They issued a water right to everyday Alaskans, which has never been done before, meaning they recognize that Alaskans have a right to keep water in our salmon streams," said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper. "But it's a punch in the stomach to the 13,000 Alaskans who took the time to write to the DNR and the administration to express support for wild salmon. It's ridiculous policy to force Alaskans to spend so much time and money to keep salmon streams healthy."

Securing the water reservation took the group more than six years and tens of thousands of dollars in research, expert and legal fees, Chuitna Citizens Coalition spokesman Ron Burnett wrote in a press release.

The decision effectively keeps the proposed project alive, allowing PacRim Coal, the company behind the mine, the opportunity to go through the permitting process. But Brent Goodrum, director of the Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water, said it puts an even greater onus on the company to make sure its activities upstream do not affect the lower reaches of the creek, where the citizens coalition now has water rights.

In explaining the rationale for the department's decision, Goodrum said there were no competing uses for water in the lower reach of the creek in the foreseeable future, while that's not the case for the other sections of the creek. The department is bound by law to determine how the water should be used for the greatest benefit of the state and its citizens.

"Unfortunately, we don't have all the information we need to make the decision to grant the reservation of those waters and until we do, it's not prudent for the state to do so," Goodrum said.

Dan Graham, project manager for PacRim Coal, issued a statement saying the company believes "agencies, not private individuals, should be the proper entities to hold reservations of a public resource."

The company said it will continue to review the details of the decision document and emphasized that "water management and potential impacts to salmon populations have been major considerations" in its plans, some of which have been submitted to regulators in the ongoing permitting process.

The decision may be appealed to the Department of Natural Resources commissioner within 20 days. Neither PacRim Coal nor Chuitna Citizens Coalition has said whether they intend to take that step.

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