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Chuitna coal mine foes sue state over water rights

Two groups opposed to a proposed coal mine across Cook Inlet from Anchorage said state officials have ignored an application for water rights that could protect salmon in the area.

However, in the meantime, officials at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources have approved temporary water use permit applications for the mine's developers, the groups said in a lawsuit.

The Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Cook Inletkeeper sued the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Commissioner Dan Sullivan on Nov. 10

Pac-Rim Coal LP, based in Delaware, has proposed the Chuitna mine project for the west side of Cook Inlet about 45 miles southwest of Anchorage. Plans call for strip-mining 300 million metric tons of coal over 25 years. Most of the coal would be shipped to Asia for burning in power plants.

The development would include a road, a conveyor system to transport coal, housing, an air strip, a logistics center and an export terminal with a 10,000-foot trestle into Cook Inlet.

PacRim's plan also calls for temporarily removing 11 miles of Middle Creek, a tributary of the Chuitna River that has been deemed by the Department of Fish and Game to be significant to salmon spawning in Cook Inlet. The company claims it would be able to restore the stream after operating the mine for more than 25 years.

Mine critics said full restoration isn't likely.

"For 25 years. Is that temporary?" Chuitna Citizens Coalition spokeswoman Judy Heilman said.

State law allows the Department of Natural Resources to grant in-stream rights to protect salmon breeding or other stream values, attorney Valerie Brown said Tuesday. Once given, the department cannot give water in the stream to anyone else if it conflicts with the rights granted to the first applicant.

The coalition in 2009 applied for water rights on Middle Creek, said Brown, who represents the coalition and Cook Inletkeeper. The state's position is that the group has no standing for water rights until they've been granted, yet the state refuses to process the application, she said.

The same scenario is occurring elsewhere in the state, Brown said.

"There are hundreds of pending applications," she said.

Also, the two groups submitted a petition in January 2010 seeking to declare state lands within the Chuitna Watershed unsuitable for coal mining. Sullivan rejected the petition last month.

Allowing PacRim's plans for the stream to move forward would set a bad precedent for other development, such as the proposed Pebble copper, molybdenum and gold mine in Southwest Alaska, Heilman said.

"We think fish first. They come first," Heilman said.

The department works closely with state wildlife and environmental conservation officials to make sure permits don't harm fish or fish habitat, department spokeswoman Elizabeth Bluemink said by email.

From mid-February through April, the department received three applications from the advocacy groups requesting 61 to 100 percent of the flow of Middle Creek and four ponds and unnamed streams, Bluemink said.

The department has 338 pending in-stream flow applications, and works with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to rank them, she said.

"At this time, there are other in-stream flow applications that are ahead of these three applications in the agency review process," Bluemink said.

The department in February issued temporary water use permits to PacRim to drill six groundwater monitoring wells. The company was authorized to use 5,000 gallons of water per day between Feb. 18 and April 30, she said.

"The average flow during this period was more than 1.6 million gallons of water per day," Bluemink said. "The company was authorized to use 0.3125 percent of the stream flow (less than 1 percent) for a several-month period."

The department during the process reviewed the in-stream flow reservation applications filed by the advocacy groups and determined that 5,000 gallons per day would not affect flows needed for fish and fish habitat, Bluemink said.


Associated Press

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