Alaska Group Presses Council To Buy Land, Block Mining

The following press release is courtesy of E&E News:

The Bering River Coal Field region in Alaska. David Little/Eyak Preservation Council

Leaders of environmental, hunting and fishing groups in Alaska today urged state and federal officials to formally study buying land to prevent it from being mined for coal.

The coalition from Cordova, Alaska, wrote to Sam Cotten, who sits on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, to ask that the panel purchase 11,000 acres of the Bering River Coal Field on the state’s southern coast.

Cotten, who’s also commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, is one of six trustees on the state-federal body created to protect the region after the infamous environmental disaster.

The land could be opened to coal mining without council action, the group said.

“Mining it by mountaintop removal and strip mining would be devastating to our community with losses of jobs, subsistence, and fish and wildlife and their habitats in the eastern portion of the EVOS region,” it wrote, using the shorthand for Exxon Valdez oil spill.

A separate Cordova organization, the Native Conservancy Land Trust, filed a request with the council yesterday to consider purchasing the tract.

“This is an historic opportunity to secure the well-being of the entire region,” Dune Lankard, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “To not ensure the conservation and protection of one of the most pristine wild salmon regions on the planet would be a colossal mistake.”

The appeal for a “link-to-injury” study of buying the land was backed last year by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

“The remaining leases … certainly could impact many of the hundreds of thousands of acres that the council has already acquired for surface habitat protection,” Murkowski wrote in a letter to the council. “That is because the Gulf of Alaska Gyre moves water from the mouths of the Bering, Copper and Martin Rivers directly into Prince William Sound’s Orca Inlet, Hinchinbrook Entrance and toward the coastline of Montague Island — all within the boundaries of the EVOS settlement program.”

In the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, state and federal authorities established the council to rehabilitate the ecosystem and to support scientific research, funded by fines paid out by the oil giant.

In 1991, the Department of Justice and Alaska secured a $900 million penalty from Exxon, to be doled out over a decade. Some of the money could be used to purchase the area.

Tim Richardson, who represents the Eyak Preservation Council, an Alaskan conservation group, said that doing so would fit with the Exxon Valdez council’s mandate to protect and acquire habitat.

“That’s Exhibit A of why to do this,” Richardson said by phone. “We’re covered by their basic purpose.”

Richardson criticized the council’s trustees — three state and three federal officials — for failing to act.

“We have been running into bureaucratic myopia,” he said.

They’re also up against the clock. The Korea Alaska Development Corp., headquartered in Seoul, South Korea, owns the coal field in question, and its majority owner, Joo Shin, has favored preventing it from being mined. But last month, Shin, who is nearly 80, wrote the council that he would convey some of his company shares by May 28 to others, who may favor development.

South Korea has become a burgeoning market for U.S. coal exports as its fleet of coal-fired power plants has expanded in recent years.