By Rebecca Bowe, Earthjustice
“This is the last thing in the world I thought I would be doing at my age,” says Ron Burnett, a conservative and Rust Belt native who is nearing 70.
Burnett is an unlikely opponent of a coal mine. But when he first learned that a massive open-pit mine was proposed a stone’s throw from his home in Alaska, he started to warn his neighbors.
“Where I come from, there’s 1,500 miles of dead water,’” Burnett says. “People can’t drink it. The fish die. It’s real bad.”
Burnett has lived in Alaska for more than 30 years, and he loves to fish. His home is just three miles from the Chuitna River, a channel that snakes through lush wetlands, tundra and forest. It’s one of the special places on earth where all five species of wild Pacific salmon can still be found. But at the headwaters of this unspoiled river, PacRim Coal plans to open the Chuitna Mine, a project so massive that it would become one of the largest open-pit coal mines nationwide. PacRim’s development plans involve cutting into the earth and digging deep below a salmon stream.
The mine would decimate 14 miles of the salmon’s spawning habitat and lay to waste some 4,000 acres of wetlands. A conveyor belt would transport extracted coal onto ships that would carry the product off to Asia.
The mine would decimate 14 miles of the salmon’s spawning habitat and lay to waste some 4,000 acres of wetlands.
Burnett often goes on ice fishing excursions in the surrounding area. “There are three or four lakes that are really good,” he says. “They would probably all dry up if this coal mine goes in.”
The fight against harms from the Chuitna Mine has gone on for years. In that time, PacRim representatives have tried to convince concerned citizens that the company will recreate the salmon stream once the mining operation is complete. Burnett doesn’t believe them. And he poses tough questions: “What if you guys go broke? Who’s going to fix it then?”
Experts have also rejected PacRim’s reclamation plan as unrealistic.
“While stream reconstruction has been done successfully by re-grading and re-vegetating banks, or adding or removing debris to create habitat, no one has simply created a new stream where none exists,” wrote Margaret Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland whose expertise is in stream ecosystem structure and function, in an assessment.
Destroy a salmon stream, and it’s gone forever.
Burnett’s fears about how the Chuitna Mine would impact the Alaskan paradise he loves – not to mention the health of his community – stem from experience. His father and grandfather worked in deep-pit mines in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and both suffered ill health effects associated with toxic coal dust. Black lung took his grandfather’s life; his father died of cancer at just 62 years old.
As a founding member of the Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition, a grassroots community organization campaigning against the Chuitna Mine, Burnett and other supporters are using every tool at their disposal to protect their communities from harms posed by the destructive project. But their ability to influence the fate of their streams will be overshadowed by decisions made this week, thousands of miles away, by lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
In Appalachia, many years ago, public outcry over the environmental and health impacts of toxic coal dust and harmful mining runoff spurred the first attempts at regulatory reform. About one million acres of Appalachian forestlands have permanently vanished as a result of mountaintop removal coal mining, an extraction technique that involves blowing the tops off mountains with dynamite and heavy explosives. Mountaintop removal mining has also destroyed roughly 2,000 miles of streams.
Retired deep miner Chuck Nelson explained in an interview that aired recently on NPR that he pushed for reform decades ago because he felt like he was being consumed by coal dust. “We started eating a lot of coal dust – I mean, bad, bad….I’d go to work and come home at night, and there would be a half inch of coal dust on everything in the house.”
“We started eating a lot of coal dust – I mean, bad, bad . . . I’d go to work and come home at night, and there would be a half inch of coal dust on everything in the house”
Nelson joined with many others to demand stronger protections to safeguard communities living near coal mines. The reform that finally came out of those efforts years later, an update to the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining regulations, was known as the Stream Protection Rule.
The rule represented the first refresh to surface mining regulations in 30 years, and it was finally completed in December 2016, following eight years of meetings and studies. The rule took effect one day before President Trump was inaugurated. Though a weaker standard than many advocates had hoped for, the Stream Protection Rule nevertheless would have armed impacted communities with the data needed to hold companies and regulators accountable when decisions were reached regarding harms from mining and the possibilities of post-mining restoration.
Despite the years of effort required to enact these protections, Congress wiped away the Stream Protection Rule this week in one fell swoop.
Lawmakers voted for “disapproval” of the rule under the Congressional Review Act, a seldom-used law that allows recently produced agency regulations to be instantly overturned. Commonly referred to as the CRA, this legislative tool could have a chilling effect—however unjustified— on future administrations looking to add protections with a future rulemaking. The House voted 228-194 to repeal the Stream Protection Rule, while the Senate voted 54-45.
The dissolution of this protective standard reduces hope of strengthening regulation to adequately protect downstream communities from proposals as destructive as the Chuitna Mine.
“There’s a lot of things we can live without,” Burnett says. “But we can’t live without water.”