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Split decision issued in water case; conservationist says decision doesn't do enough for fish


JUNEAU, Alaska — A state agency delivered a split decision Wednesday for conservationists seeking to protect fish from the potential development of a coal mine in south-central Alaska.

The Department of Natural Resources' Water Resources Section approved one of three water reservation applications requested by the Chuitna Citizens Coalition. The decision was signed Tuesday and released on Wednesday.

The application approved was for the lower reach of Middle Creek, outside the boundaries of the mine plan being pursued by PacRim Coal. According to the decision, based on information provided by the coalition and the objections of PacRim and others, it was determined that granting the requested reservations within the mine-site boundaries "likely would preclude the mine project from moving forward."

"At the least, there is a perception by industry that granting a reservation of water within the mine site will be seen as pre-judging the competing project, which may result in financial consequences that are fatal to the project," the decision states. "While there is some amount of speculation in these conclusions, this is a consequence of performing the analysis without full or more complete information because the permitting review process has not been completed."

The decision determined that it is in the public interest to allow the permitting review process for the mine project to be completed and to not approve the other two reservations at this time.

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 water reservation applications were made in 2009. The department had been ordered by a court to adjudicate them.

The decision can be appealed to the department's commissioner and, potentially, later to the courts. Conservationists said they were considering their options.

This would be the first time that a water reservation has been granted to a private entity, which Carly Wier, from the Alaskans First campaign, called exciting. But she said it was disappointing that the other reservation applications were not approved. The campaign has worked with the coalition and others.

The coalition's Ron Burnett, in a release, said that with the decision, the department "is saying that a potential coal strip mine is more valuable to the public than protecting wild salmon habitat."

"This decision doesn't do enough to protect fish in the Chuitna River because it doesn't keep water flowing in the salmon-spawning areas of Middle Creek," Burnett said.

In a statement, PacRim said it agrees with the agency's decision to deny two of the water reservation applications and to allow the mine permit review process to proceed. But the company said it's concerned with the potential regulatory implications of granting control of state water to a small group of people and said it would continue to review the decision.

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