Chickaloon Village fights coal mine on sacred territory

CHICKALOON VILLAGE, Alaska – The Chickaloon Tribe has promised to use everything in its power to stop a mining project it says will violate its freedom of religion rights and endanger the environment of its traditional sacred territory.

A proposal by Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. to build a road along the sacred Moose Creek to a coal mining operation is bringing déjà vu of disaster to the community.

In 1914, the Defense Department began mining coal in the same area to fuel warships. The World War I-era mining project devastated the Ahtna Athabascan Village of Chickaloon, leaving only 40 survivors when the coal mine pulled out in 1922, said Angela Wade, the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council’s Environmental Program director.

“It’s been a history of oppression, depression and almost genocide for us. Most of the tribal members died from alcoholism, rapid changes in diet and the series of influenzas that came with the miners, so it was a very short term gain for a very big cost to us as a tribe.”

Moose Creek is culturally significant to the Chickaloon Tribe as a traditional and current fishing site, a source for drinking water and a site for cultural, religious and spiritual ceremonies.

Over the past seven years, the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council has spent more than $1 million to restore salmon and salmon habitat in Moose Creek, gaining national acclaim for their restoration efforts.

Now Usibelli wants to build a 2.7-mile road along Moose Creek to operate a coal mine on some of the 8,100 acres of land it leases from the state.

Company officials estimate the lease holds about 10 million tons of coal, enough to operate a mine for 12 to 20 years, Alaska’s News Service reported.

Usibelli started construction of the road June 7. It plans to conduct open pit strip mining, as well as blasting and hauling coal adjacent to Moose Creek. The mining operation will require up to 200 trucks a day to carry loads of coal down the road adjacent to the creek where the Chickaloon Tribe’s traditional religious/cultural hunting and gathering use area is, where tribal citizens live, and where the tribal school and playground are 300 feet from the road, Wade said.

“These activities will bisect a sacred hunting area which tribal members use for hunting ceremonial potlatch moose. Moose are sacred, essential aspects of the traditional ceremonies still practiced today by the Athabascan peoples who have inhabited this area since time immemorial. The area’s moose population is certain to be impacted by the blasting and other proposed mining activities. This will directly violate the freedom of religion of Chickaloon Village and its tribal citizens,” the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council said in a statement.

The company needs to secure two permits in order to move forward with the mining project: It must renew an exploration permit with the state this year and it also wants to renew a 25-year lease for 60 acres of land belonging to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough (the Mat-Su Borouigh), which is a key access point for the mine, according to the Alaska News Service.

On June 7, the Mat-Su Borough Planning Commission voted 4-3 against allowing the coal company to build the road – a recommended denial that will be sent to Mat-Su Borough Assembly, which has the final say on whether the lease will be issued.

Wade said the coal company approached the tribe last fall to talk about the project, but it said at the time that the road would be like a goat trail and the exploration would be a few small holes.

“Now it’s a whole different story. The local newspaper says Usibelli has practically sold the coal to a Japanese company and their testimony to the borough said the mining road is going to be wide enough for two big coal hauling trucks to pass each other. It’s no longer a goat trail and the exploration is the full blown mining package,” Wade said.

A company spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

The state has no policy of consultation with the tribe.

“We got a notice of the public hearing and we attended. We turned out in pretty good numbers and we testified, but it doesn’t matter and it didn’t matter. The Alaska State Department of Natural Resources is set up for economic development, not to make a fair decision based on what’s best for the long term,” Wade said.

The tribe has joined forces with the environmentalist Alaska Coal working group to add the tribal perspective to their fight, and is considering legal action against the state and Usibelli.

“I’m sure we’ll sue anybody we have to, to get this stopped,” Wade said.

International Indian Treaty Council Executive Director Andrea Carmen said the council is fully supporting Chickaloon Tribe’s efforts, and will bring the issue to the U.N.’s Expert mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at its third session in Geneva in July.

“Now that the U.S. has announced it is reviewing its position on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, presumably toward support for the Declaration, I would hope they would not allow any of the core rights that are affirmed in the Declaration to be violated while they’re in this review process,” Carmen said.

Carmen said the mining project violates a number of articles in the Declaration, including indigenous peoples’ rights to be secure in their means of subsistence and development and to give free and informed prior consent to any project that affects indigenous lands or territories.

But the most applicable is Article 25, Carmen said: “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”