The Chuitna coal case is heading back to court. Last month, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack reversed a previous order granting water protections for salmon streams on the west side of Cook Inlet.
Those protections were put in place because of the threat posed by development of a proposed coal mine, but with those plans now off the table, so too are the water protections.
The Chuitna Citizens Coalition is appealing a decision to reverse an order granting the group what’s called an instream flow reservation. An IFR, in effect, saves water in a stream for a specific purpose. In this case, that reservation was granted in 2015 in order to protect salmon spawning grounds in Middle Creek. But the project that Chuitna sought to protect those spawning grounds from is no longer being pursued.
This summer, DNR Commissioner Andy Mack reversed the previous order, triggering the latest legal fight. Ron Burnett is the President of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition.
“The industries do not want the people to have any say in what they do. All they want is to get their product out of the ground, oil or whatever it is, and sell it, and get more and sell it. They don’t care about the aftermath at all. They say they do. They don’t.”
Commissioner Mack made his decision this summer after PacRim Coal gave up trying to develop the area, citing a poor market for coal. He says that decision was based, in part, on an obligation to recognize the needs of one of that area’s major landowners, the Alaska Mental Health Trust, which was affirmed by the courts two decades ago.
“My decision in August was really focused on the fact that the asset itself, the proposed coal mine, owned by the Mental Health Trust Authority. They have a million acres statewide which they develop on behalf of their beneficiaries. I want to make sure that they get the benefit of that agreement in the early 90’s and I think it’s time to sit down and try to settle this so that that area can potentially be protected.”
The courts have sided with Chuitna in previous challenges. But Mack says decisions like this, with implications for wildlife, subsistence users and developers, shouldn’t be made at the administrative level. He points to other western states that have boards making similar decisions, ostensibly outside the realm of the politics of the day.
“If you go to a state like Arizona or Colorado or Idaho, they’ll have a water resources board. Usually folks are appointed, and they have some insulation from the political process. There’s long terms, they have professional staff that really delve into these critical and sensitive issues.”
Burnett doesn’t think that added layer of bureaucracy is needed, and he says when looking at all the other places in the world that no longer have salmon, the issue of water rights shouldn’t be that difficult to resolve.
“When I came up here in 1980, the wetlands act was really strong. I mean, you could not go out there until it was froze up, some of it had to have a certain amount of snow cover. And now they’re talking about just destroying it all. I’m not talking about destroying it and then in 20 years it will be better. It will never be better again, ever.”
The next step in this case is another stop in Alaska Superior Court.