Commentary: Last best chance for spill Trustees to protect Bering River

Alaskans may recall recent efforts by a group convened by the Rasmuson Foundation proposing its “New Vision for EVOS” to end the government Exxon Valdez oil spill restoration program, with all remaining funds from the 1991 billion-dollar government environmental damage settlement (then about $188 million) being turned over mostly to their own organizations via the Alaska Community Foundation. That proposal was found legally impermissible by the U.S. Department of Justice and Alaska Department of Law, and unanimously rejected by the EVOS Trustee Council last year, rightfully so.

But now some of these same groups are back, again proposing that they be given most of the remaining funds directly, over the next decade.  The Trustee Council has $162 million left, but at its upcoming meeting on Oct. 13, it will consider proposals totaling in excess of $250 million – most for science, economic development, and cultural programs, and most going to some of the same groups convened before by the Rasmuson Foundation.  

That was a bad idea before, and it remains so now.  The restoration and recovery of the injured environment is far from complete.  

For instance, there are several critical habitat areas in the spill region today that remain vulnerable to damaging industrial activities that threaten ecological recovery. The Trustee Council must continue to eliminate such threats, as it has with its remarkably successful habitat program over the past 30 years.

 At the top of the Council’s to-do list must be the purchase and permanent retirement of the 40 million-ton coalfield at Bering River, east of the Copper River Delta.  For 25 years, local groups have proposed that the Bering River coalfield be acquired and retired to protect this region as part of the EVOS restoration effort. But due to years of inaction by the Trustee Council, this opportunity could now slip away entirely.  

At its upcoming Oct. 13 meeting (potentially its last, if it commits all remaining funds), the Trustee Council has a last best chance to act on the Bering River conservation deal.  

The Bering River region is one of the most spectacular, productive, wild places left in the world, an ecological treasure.  It lies just east of the Copper River Delta, at the foot of the Bering Glacier and massive (1,900 square mile) Bagley icefield (America’s largest icefield, located in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park).  The area of the proposed mine is important habitat for salmon, birds, brown bears, wolves, mountain goats, and moose.  The coast, where coal export would occur, is rich with herring, salmon, seals, sea lions, sea otters, clams, seabirds, and whales. The area is the ancestral homeland of the Eyak people, and in fact, is where the first documented contact occurred between Alaska Natives and Europeans – the July 20, 1741 Bering Expedition landing on Kayak Island.   

Over 100 years ago, the Bering River coalfield became one of the nation’s first major conservation controversies, prompting then President Teddy Roosevelt to protect the area from proposed coal development by the Morgan/Guggenheim “Alaska Syndicate,” by placing it into the just-formed Chugach National Forest.  In the 1970s, the area was selected by the Chugach Alaska Corporation (CAC), which then transferred the Bering River coal resource to the Korea Alaska Development Corporation (KADCO) in Seoul.  In 2016 the surrounding CAC lands were protected in a landmark carbon-offset deal, but the large KADCO coalfield was not part of that deal, and thus remains available for development.   

Ironically, the only significant ecological threat remaining to the region today is the very same threat that President Roosevelt worried about 100 years ago — the potential for a huge coal mine at Bering River/Carbon Mountain.  

Mine plans include strip and mountain-top-removal, a large coal transfer facility, road-and-tram system south to Katalla and Controller Bay, coal storage facility, coal-fired power plant, power transmission lines, causeway across to Kanak Island, deepwater port, and an access road across the Copper River Delta.  In addition to the extensive habitat damage the mine would cause, any accidental discharge would flow west to the Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound.

It is clearly in the national, state, and local interest that this threat be permanently eliminated.

KADCO remains a willing seller for conservation, but due to continued inaction by the Trustee Council, the company is now also marketing its Bering River asset to other coal companies for development.  The opportunity to reach a conservation deal may not be available much longer.  In a last-ditch effort, KADCO just this month offered its Bering River asset to the government Trustees, the offer expiring on Oct. 15, 2021, and committed to consider a counteroffer. A deal is still there to be had.

The public interest in this Bering River conservation deal is inarguable, as it:

  • Supports and protects the existing commercial fishing, subsistence, tourism, and recreation economies of the region;  
  • Offers the best chance left to replace resources and resource services injured by the 1989 oil spill, by protecting uninjured but threatened resources;
  • Supports the Eyak Preservation Council and Native Conservancy interest in preserving this ancestral Eyak homeland;
  • Protects a spectacular, remote, wild region along the coast of Alaska in support of the federal “30×30” conservation initiative;
  • Keeps over 40 million tons of high-grade coal in the ground that, if mined and burned, would emit over 120 million tons of CO2into the atmosphere, and; 
  • Would be done at no taxpayer expense, entirely with funds available in the EVOS habitat account, today with a remaining balance of about $65 million. 

Politically, this is about as good as it gets.  

And to those who suggest the mine project is not economic and would never be developed, that is a risk many are unwilling to take.  While no one expects his or her house to burn down, most still buy fire insurance.  Alaskans need similar insurance that the Bering River area will be permanently protected from any future risk of a coal mine.  While coal should be dead as a future energy resource, the market price now is at record highs, so who knows what the future economics of this would be.  Also, many recall that other destructive industrial projects conducted in Alaska have been non-economic as well, like the clearcutting of Alaska’s coastal forests facilitated by Net Operating Loss tax sales. 

Given the revived attempt to cash out the remaining restoration funds at its October meeting, the Trustee Council must seriously consider all proposals in context of what is the highest and best interest of the injured environment.  At minimum, the Council must set aside and authorize sufficient funds to secure a Bering River conservation deal – perhaps $20 million – and commit to immediately negotiate the deal with KADCO, subject to fair market value appraisal. 

The Trustee Council must remain focused on environmental protection and recovery, and not allow this last best chance to protect the Bering River region slip away. 

Rick Steiner is founder of Oasis Earth in Anchorage, was a University of Alaska marine professor based in Cordova from 1983-1996, first proposed the government/Exxon settlement and use of funds for habitat protection, and has engaged with the restoration program since its inception.  He advises governments, NGOs, and the U.N. on oil spill and conservation issues.