ANCHORAGE— The Alaska Department of Natural Resources bowed to corporate pressure late yesterday evening, after the court ordered deadline, and rejected efforts by Alaskan citizens to protect wild salmon in the Chuitna River watershed on the west side of Cook Inlet.
“It’s been 9 years since we filed papers to reserve enough water in Middle Creek to protect wild salmon,” said Ron Burnett of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, a local group formed to protect the Chuitna River from open-pit coal strip mining. “Over the last four years, the Walker Administration has been in cahoots with the mining industry, and has bent over backwards to stop us from protecting the river we fish in. Now Walker is saying that we can’t protect the river until the mining company comes back to challenge us? That’s just not right.”
The issue revolves around instream flow reservations (IFR). Alaska law expressly allows Alaskans to reserve water in a stream to protect fish and wildlife. The Walker Administration has been eager to grant out-of-stream withdrawals to large oil, gas and mining corporations, but it has put up administrative road blocks when Alaskan citizens lawfully use the same process to keep water in streams to protect wild salmon.
Tuesday’s 11th hour decision by DNR Commissioner Andy Mack to reverse the original decision to grant the instream flow water reservation went further and weakend the interpretation of the law by proclaiming that no instream flow water reservation should be issued unless there is a development project that threatens a river.
“In my 23 years working on salmon habitat permitting issues in Alaska, I have never seen an abuse of power like this,” said Cook Inletkeeper’s Bob Shavelson. “It’s clear the mining industry is calling the shots, and that our fish habitat protection system is badly broken. Today’s decision means that Alaskans have no more pro-active tools to protect salmon streams.”
The Chuitna Citizens filed its original applications to reserve water in Middle Creek in 2009, to protect wild salmon from the proposed Chuitna coal mine, which would have destroyed over 14 miles of wild salmon streams. DNR delayed for years, forcing the coalition to file a lawsuit to press DNR to adjudicate their claims. Time after time, Alaska courts sided with Chuitna Citizens, and ordered DNR to act.
After DNR finally issued a decision in October 2015 – granting Chuitna Citizens one of its three requested instream flow reservations—every oil, gas and mining trade group in the state appealed. DNR Commissioner Andy Mack then dragged his feet two more years, until he issued one of the most illogical and convoluted decisions in Alaska administrative law history.
Mack ruled in December 2017 that because the proponent behind the Chuitna Coal Mine – PacRim Coal – backed-out of the project, circumstances required an entirely new decision. Not surprisingly, Mack’s decision came after a closed-door meeting with the Alaska Mining Association, which vehemently opposes the law allowing Alaskans to reserve water to protect salmon.
The Alaska Superior Court, however, saw through DNR’s charade, and after more DNR delays and appeals, it ordered DNR to make a final decision by August 27, 2018. In May, the Court warned DNR that failure to comply with its order may lead to contempt proceedings. Today’s decision by DNR Commissioner Andy Mack flies in the face of a letter opinion drafted by instream flow experts on Mack’s own staff (see attached letter).
“The law gives Chuitna Citizens a right to reserve water, just as industry does, but the state has failed to make a timely decision and instead locked the process up in court for nearly 10 years,” said Brian Litmans with Trustees for Alaska, the public interest law firm which has represented Chuitna Citizens since the 2009 filings. “Does the Walker Administration think there is one set of laws for the mining industry and another for everyday Alaskans who want to protect wild salmon?”
In light of the State’s flagrant abuse of power, Chuitna Citizens is mulling contempt proceedings against DNR, at a time when Alaskans are engaged in a heated debate over whether to strengthen Alaska’s 60 year-old salmon habitat protection law.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Ron Burnett: 907.230.0225
Carly Wier, Cook Inletkeeper: 907.235.4068 x25 or cell 719‐293‐1202
Brian Litmans, Trustees for Alaska: 907.433.2007