Citizen’s Coalition Sues Over Salmon Habitat Issues

A state of Alaska decision denying a citizen group’s request for an instream flow water reservation for waters in the Chuitna watershed of Southcentral Alaska has prompted a lawsuit in Alaska Superior Court.

This past week, the Chuitna Citizens Coalition filed an appeal to the decision reached by Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack against granting that reserve to protect wild salmon habitat. Mack said he had to take into consideration what is in the public interest in this case, which initially involved a proposed coal mine on lands owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and if there is a need to issue an instream flow water reservation. In this case, the need was not there, he explained.

At the time the coalition first proposed the water reserve, PacRim Coal LP, a Delaware-based corporation owned by a Texas-based energy company, had plans to build what would have been the largest strip mine in Alaska. Their plans would have included destruction of salmon habitat in the Chuitna watershed. Litigation between supporters of the project, including the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and opponents, including wild salmon harvesters and environmental groups, goes back over nine years.

In March 2017, PacRim advised the state of Alaska that it was suspending its effort to get permits for the mine, due to an investment effort failure.

“It’s just not fair,” said Ron Burnett, president of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition. “The state says mining companies can get rights to take water out of streams permanently, but regular citizens can’t get rights to keep water in our streams for fish. That’s plain wrong.”

DNR did grant the requested instream flow right to the citizens coalition in 2015, but mining, oil and gas corporations appealed the decision. Finally, last December, Mack issued his decision, saying that because the coal company had relinquished its leases, such changed circumstance warranted an entirely new decision. In late September, Mack issued his new decision denying the request to keep water in the streams on grounds that the coal company had pulled out and there was no current competing interest for the water.