Thursday, July 7, 2011

In Praise of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council - Part One

I. Last month, at a Wasilla public meeting on health and land value issues surrounding the proposed developments of very large coal mines near Chickaloon and Palmer, I made a video of Chickaloon Village resident Shawna Larson. She told her powerful story about the history of Chickaloon, and her family. It is an incredibly compelling presentation. Afterward, I asked Shawna if I could post it on youtube. She agreed, but seemed reluctant. So I emailed her, stating that I hope to help her tell her story to people here in the future.

This is the first installment.

Like many Alaska Native communities, Chickaloon suffered much from its intitial exposure to White contact, and to capitalist-styled development practices. The companies and government organizations that thrust themselves upon Chickaloon before World War I cannot be blamed for the smallpox and influenza that all but extinguished Native life in Chickaloon any more than in other similar villages and towns. The way the mines at Chickaloon were run was no different from practices in other Alaska areas overrun by turn-of-the century speculators and schemers.

Each Alaska Native community devastated by White ways has responded differently. Some have been successful in maintaining control of their destinies. Others have not. Chickaloon's road to recovery has been long, hard and somewhat iconoclastic.

I got involved with learning more details of Chickaloon-initiated projects through having been on the board of directors of the Friends of Mat-Su since 2004. We've worked with the Village Council on the Moose Creek Chinook Salmon restoration project, which is finally showing the beginnings of success. We hope that eventually, Moose Creek (between Palmer and Sutton) will have a bigger annual King return than the Deshka. It once had that, and there is no reason it cannot have that richness again.

II. On July 5th, the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council issued a press release containing the following:
In response to appeals filed by the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council (CVTC), Castle Mountain Coalition, Pacific Environment, and other community groups, on Friday, July 1, 2011, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced it would withdraw a Decision allowing Ranger Alaska, LLC (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the foreign mining company Black Range Minerals, Ltd.) to operate a surface strip and underground coal mine in the headwaters of critical salmon habitat.

CVTC's appeal focused on DNR’s failure to respond to public comments and its failure to require mine owners to meet statutory deadlines. "State law requires DNR to respond to issues raised through the public comment process and that didn't happen here," said Lisa Wade, a Chickaloon Tribal citizen and Health and Social Services Director. "It was irresponsible for DNR to issue this permit, and instead they should have required Ranger Alaska to submit a new application for coal mining at Jonesville," stated Traditional Chief Gary Harrison. “But we are happy the permit has been withdrawn and hope DNR will fully take our concerns into account in the future when considering coal developments in sensitive and traditional Tribal areas,” he added.

Written Tribal public comments had noted that water pollution and reclamation failures from near the coal mine site persist, despite the mine having closed operations more than four decades ago. CVTC also commented about safety issues that plagued the coal mine when it last operated, including deadly explosions from pockets of gas in the mountain. Recognizing it did not respond to Tribal comments, DNR announced it would withdraw its Decision.

Salmon are a critical cultural and food resources for the Tribe and the Tribe has heavily invested in salmon habitat restoration work in the region, including projects on Eska Creek—which the Jonesville coal mine area drains into. Restoring the once prolific salmon runs attracts jobs and fishing opportunities to the area. "The information in the current permit is just so terribly outdated—the vital importance of salmon to our culture and community and our cooperative work with the Borough, State and Federal Governments to restore salmon runs in Matanuska River tributaries needs to be fully considered," said Shawna Larson, a Chickaloon Tribal citizen and Co-Director of Pacific Environment.

Press coverage of what some regard to have been an important decision withdrawal by DNR has been scant. I'm not sure why that is, but some feel the decision is only temporary and will have minimal impact on other DNR actions underway or under review regarding large or huge coal development projects, or upon other proposed mining projects, such as Pebble Mine. I'm inclined to believe this is a positive development, and that it occurred largely because CVTC and its allies prepared a compelling case.

The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman published the most detailed article yet on this on July 6th. In it, the impact of the decision on other proposed mines in the Valley is covered:
CVTC said it has spent millions in grant funds restoring salmon habitat in the area, including projects on Eska Creek, into which the Jonesville coal mine area drains. It argues restoring salmon runs attracts jobs and fishing opportunities to the area.

“The information in the current permit is just so terribly outdated,” said Shawna Larson, a Chickaloon Tribal citizen and co-director of Pacific Environment, one of the groups that filed the permit appeal with DNR.

Groups fighting the mines also feel DNR’s recent action on Jonesville will spark a second look at permit information submitted by the area’s other prospective mining company, Healy-based Usibelli Coal Mine Co. They believe some of the data submitted by UCM for the Wishbone Hill mine properties off Buffalo Mine Road dates back to the 1980s and should therefore be declared invalid.

Although a Black Range Minerals representative could not be reached for comment this week, Usibelli Spokeswoman Lorali Simon said Tuesday she doesn’t think the technical issues faced by Black Range Minerals will have any impact on that company’s ability to open a mine at Jonesville in the future and that it has nothing to do with Usibelli’s permit application.

Simon said she believes groups opposed to the mine are merely mimicking Chicken Little by claiming the sky is falling again.

“The Mat Valley Coalition and CVTC are blowing this way out of proportion,” Simon said. “In my opinion, it’s a procedural issue, not a substantive issue. All in all, Black Range Minerals still has a valid permit.”

Kirkham said he’s not sure how long the investigation into the Jonesville permit could last. He said it could be anywhere from one week to several weeks and that the state will release an update when it has one.
Loreli Simon's observation is incorrect. This is both a procedural and substantive issue. The coalition of people opposed to having their health impaired by being downwinders from a megamine just a rock's throw uphill and upwind from Soapstone Road near Palmer; of having their kids killed by a careening, overloaded truck, running coal from Sutton to Port Pt. MacKensie, as it rear ends a busload of gradeschoolers; or of having to show their house full of coal dust to a prospective buyer, is growing.

Loreli, we're going to grind your newest employer and their allies into dust. This is just the first of a string of victories of common sense over your dying, ossified, fossilizing industry.

I'm so proud to be an ally of the Chickaloon Traditional Village Council in this struggle.

disclaimer - the author is organizationally involved in this issue and has published details here on that.

1 comment:

Dan Heynen said...

I'm forwarding a link to all the Bonnie Lake folks. Wind blows W to E in the summer up there...

Lorali has a new last name?