Coal vs. Wild Salmon: The Chuitna Mine Should Never See the Light of Day

In this late stage of the global warming crisis, it is hard to imagine why the Obama administration and decision makers in Alaska continue to push hard to approve a five thousand acre coal strip mine that will pump over 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Yet PacRim Coal LP’s Chuitna Coal Mine project is alive and well with the Army Corp of Engineers leading the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The tragic consequences of this project on the Earth’s climate are bad enough. But what is being lost on the ground is equally disturbing.

According to the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, “the mine will set a dangerous precedent for the State of Alaska by permitting the destruction Middle Creek (stream 2003) by the complete removal of 11 miles of streambed and more than 300 feet of underlying soil and rock strata.” Middle Creek is a valuable fishery supporting chinook and coho salmon, rainbow trout, steelhead, and Dolly Varden trout. It provides roughly 20% of the silver salmon for the entire Chuitna River system and would be utterly destroyed by the mine. Existing uses of the stream and its watershed would also be lost: hunting, fishing gathering wild foods, sportfishing and recreation.

In 2009, the CCC took a novel approach for protecting Middle Creek against the catastrophic impacts of the mine and maintaining these existing uses. CCC used a provision of Alaska law that allows citizens to petition to reserve instream flow rights for fish, wildlife, and recreation. As part of the adjudication process, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must determine whether or not the proposed reservation is in the public interest. Quantifying economic benefits are key to this determination. In a hurried, back of the envelope calculation completed in the spring of 2015, DNR has determined that this pristine wilderness is worth, at best, only $10,600 per year. That’s the dockside value of 1,789 coho salmon the river supports. But what about all the other uses this watershed supports as well as the inherent values Alaskan’s place on preserving this refugia for native biological diversity?

Working with Cook Inletkeepers, CSE conducted a review of the DNR approach and conducted a preliminary ecosystem service valuation of the Middle Creek watershed left in its natural state. Unlike DNR, CSE incorporated all known information about the economic values the watershed supports. What we found is that ecosystem service benefits of the Middle Creek watershed are likely to be in the range of $55.4 million to $134.2 million each year, or a present value of $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion over 50 years. Instream flow benefits are a sub-component of ecosystem services provided by Middle Creek. These are the benefits associated with direct uses of the river. The literature on instream flow benefits per acre-foot suggests an annual value of instream flow on Middle Creek to be in the order of $7.1 million to $17.0 million each year, or a present value of $183.4 million to $436.6 million over 50 years.

By concentrating on a single benefit – the dockside value of a single species of fish – DNR has drastically underestimated Middle Creek’s economic values and, thus, has biased its decision making process against instream flow protection. CSE’s analysis has now been submitted to DNR for consideration in the adjudication process and submitted to the Army Corp for consideration in the NEPA process. Cook Inletkeeper, CSE and partners in Alaska hope this will force these agencies back to the drawing board to consider the true worth of this pristine Alaska wilderness.

For a copy of CSE’s Middle Creek valuation, please visit our Chuitna Project Page here.

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