READ: A Proposed Coal Mine Would Put Alaskan Natives at Risk

By Yessenia Funes Sep 20, 2016

All eyes are on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota as they battle the Dakota Access Pipeline, but they’re not the only Native people waging war against the fossil fuel industry.

The Tyonek tribe of Alaska is at risk of losing their fishing and hunting grounds to a $700 million project, the Chuitna mine. Melissa Cronin explores their struggle for Grist’s latest special report.

She writes:

The coastal village of Tyonek lies on Cook Inlet, about 45 miles west of Anchorage, just a few miles downriver from the proposed mine site. For the tribe, which numbers fewer than 200 people, the mine represents an existential threat. “We will go to war if someone comes down here and starts plowing over us,” tribal president Art Standifer tells me. “We’ll go to battle.”

The mine, which is planned to sit on top of the Cook Inlet near the Chuitna River in southeastern Alaska, would put the salmon which the Tyonek depend on for food at risk. The company promises to “recreate” the salmon run after they extract the coal, but Cronin spoke with experts who find that unlikely, if not impossible.

She goes on:

In the near-pristine wild of Alaska, it’s not easy to dig something up and then put it back together, as Lance Trasky, a now-retired habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, wrote in an email. “I am confident that the salmon habitat that would be mined in the proposed Chuitna coal lease area could not be restored to its former level of productivity after coal mining,” he says, adding that what PacRim [the company behind the mine] is proposing has never been done before.

As Cronin posits, coal is a seemingly dying industry, making this proposal risky both environmentally and financially.  “The U.S. coal industry is in worse economic straits than it has been since the rise of the industry,” says Robert N. Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program, to Grist. Natural gas, made popular through the fracking process, is today’s dirty energy of choice with its production set to overtake coal’s this year. 

Coal is also one of the dirtiest fuels, which is why federal regulations like the Clean Power Plan have attempted to shrink the industry. Communities have also tried to curtail its production. Oakland banned a coal export terminal in July to protect the health of its predominantly Black residents. In May, the Lummi Nation in Washington state blocked another terminal.

But PacRim is thinking globally with its plans for the Alaskan mine. Cronin explains:

During the 1980s and after, coal exporters looked to developing economies to provide new markets. China, which now burns nearly half of the world’s coal, had looked like a safe bet — until China’s coal consumption peaked in 2013 and started falling. Still, other Asian markets may grow in the next few years. According to the Energy Information Administration, South Korea, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia are all expected to see an uptick in demand over the next 25 years.

The proposal is still seeking approvals and a draft of its environmental impact statement, which the Army Corps of Engineers are putting together. Incidentally, the Corps are the same agency the Sioux in North Dakota are suing over the Dakota Access Pipeline. Like the Sioux, the Tyonek aren’t backing down without a fight.

Find the full story here