EVOS given a May 28 deadline to buy coal rights

Coal fields in question lie outside defined Exxon Valdez spill area

Bering River coal field region. Photo by Jeremy Storm, Eyak Preservation Council

For years a number of Alaskans have urged use of Exxon Valdez oil spill recovery funds to retire the Bering River coalfield patent from a foreign entity to ensure permanent conservation of the Copper River.

Now the majority shareholder in the Korea Alaska Development Corp. has given the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council a May 28 deadline to buy his shares or risk development of the coal prospect, which lies east of Cordova on the eastern edge of Prince William Sound.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, one of three state and three federal trustees serving on the council, said that to date nobody on the council has proposed advancing the idea of negotiating the purchase of those shares. The big issue is that these coal fields are outside of the Exxon Valdez oil spill area, and it is not a high priority for the council, he said.

“We have had presentations on it, but I haven’t seen anything that suggests it is an eminent threat to fish habitat,” he said

  1. Joe Shin, chairman of KADCO, said in his April 21 letter to the trustee council that KADCO is still willing to enter into a conservation transaction to help conserve the coal field to further the EVOS restoration mission, and in that process project jobs and the environment.

Over the past three decades, he has developed a special kinship with Cordova, Shin said, but he will be 80 years old in a few months and has faced some stressful decisions for the sake of his family, colleagues and himself, one of them being what to do with his majority shareholder status in KADCO.

Shin said that at the end of February he signed agreements with his former business associates and others with minority shareholder status in KADCO to convey some shares to them, allowing them to become the majority shareholder interest in the company by May 28 “unless there is some clear evidence of progress and intent by the trustee council or others to acquire the Bering River coal title owned by KADCO.”

Shin reminded the trustee council that KADCO’s initial commitment to help retire its coal ownership was made a couple of decades ago, and that the company has since extended its commitment to the conservation project, by forgoing potential business operations.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, urged the trustees last October to initiate a link-to-injury analysis, the first step in deciding whether they should commit trust fund habitat money to negotiate for and acquire the last of those coal leases.

The senator noted that the acquisition earlier in 2017 of development rights to 85 percent of the coal lands in that area by The Nature Conservancy and the New Forests /Forest Carbon Partners on environmental grounds made it timely for the trustees to consider acquisition of the remaining 11,000 acres up the Bering-Martin rivers that would drain into the Copper River Delta, potentially impacting the fishery habitat of Prince William Sound.

In December of 2017, a coalition opposed to potential strip mining of coal in the Copper River Delta Watershed sent a letter to Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott urging their leadership in expediting a link-to-injury assessment that they said is the first step needed for the trustee council to consider and commit to using some EVOS funding to acquire and protect 11,000 acres of coal in the Bering River coal field.

The coalition recognized that for the trustee council to expend EVOS settlement funds that a “link-to-injury” determination was needed for any potential habitat project relating to the species and human services injured by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

The link to injury in this instance is compelling and we believe that the use of EVOS consent decree funding to achieve this historic effort is fully justified and with such strong justification and rationale would be agreed to if necessary by the court the coalition said.

The letter was signed by hundreds of individuals, plus small businesses and non-profit entities, including Copper River Watershed Project, Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin, Cordova District Fishermen United, Orca Adventure Lodge, individual fish harvesters, marine conservation biologist Rick Steiner of Anchorage, and others.

“Never has there been a more appropriate opportunity to use EVOS funds as to buy and retire the Bering River coalfield owned by KADCO,” Steiner said. “Chugach Alaska Corp. did its share last year, by selling interests in their forest in Carbon Mountain, along with the residual coal, in the California carbon market.

“But the vast majority of the environmental threat in the region remains in the Bering River Coalfield, still owned by KADCO,” he said. “That needs to be put to bed as well, and everyone knows it. If it were to be developed, it would threaten the entire Copper River/Bering River salmon runs, as they out-migrate in the spring, and run toward the stream mouths in summer.

A mine tailings failure from Bering River would contaminate vast areas of these rivers and estuaries,” he said.

Meanwhile another coalition, led by the Eyak Preservation Council and other advocates of the coal buyback is circulating a new document that notes the trustee council last November approved a recommendation by Steve Wackowski, the Interior Department’s representative on the council, to have staff scope the potential link-to-injury of fish and wildlife resources and human services in the Copper River Delta.

The document also argues that based on recent discussions, it appears that the council concurs that it has the authority to use restoration funding outside the current EVOS boundary, which was drawn based largely on where oil stranded on shorelines, not strictly on an ecosystem basis.

The document also concludes that the Copper River watershed would be severely and adversely impacted by mountaintop removal and strip mining of coal if the Bering River coalfield were mined.

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