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The Alaska fishing village taking on 'Godzilla'

Cook inlet Image copyright Pete Niesen

Alaska is a vast wilderness of natural beauty. But it also holds more coal than all the other US states put together. As world leaders prepare to gather for a major climate change summit, plans to build an open coal mine that would cover 78 sq km (30 sq miles) surrounding a valued Alaskan river could be coming to a head.

Al Goozmer is about to take on Godzilla. One more time.

We are standing on the sandy edge of the Chuitna River, and Al, the president of the Tyonek Native Village, is holding some small lumps of coal in his hand.

This is the coal that the indigenous people in his small settlement have collected and used for generations as a fuel source, the coal that emerges on the beach from under the river, part of a huge mother lode that stretches about a dozen miles inland.

Godzilla is what Al calls the proposed development of an open cast, strip coal mine at that site, that would encompass over 5,000 acres. It would be the largest in Alaska.

The ore would then travel along a permanent 18km transporting chute, over the river, out to waiting ships in the Cook Inlet.

Destination? Power stations in China.

Al and many in his community think the development will be a disaster for his village and their way of life.

"I call it my cathedral, an open-air cathedral, I come here to meditate and pray," Al says as we survey the beach littered with tree trunks and other river-borne natural debris.

We have driven the short distance on a rough shingle road from Tyonek village in Al's battered truck.

Tyonek is a gated indigenous community of around 200 people by the edge of the sea. Just 64km or so across the Cook Inlet from Anchorage, there couldn't be more of a contrast with the big city.

In Tyonek there are no open roadways - you have to fly in or come by boat when the sea is calm. You also have to be invited. Tribal regulations permit visitors if someone vouches for them, and they stay less than 24 hours.

Flights from Anchorage take a bare 30 minutes. It's like a cab ride for the locals. Small children sleep in the back of the four-seater plane.

There's an alarming crack in the surface of the strut beside my seat. I decide that Rachel, the young pilot, probably knows about that already, so I don't bring it to her attention.

The plane skims over the water and the flat, muddy tundra. The bleak, dun-coloured landscape stretches away from the busy seaway towards the snow-dusted Todrillo mountains.

A white church in the centre of Tyonek stands out as the aeroplane comes over the village to land on the stony airstrip by the edge of the Cook Inlet.

As we drive around Al tells me the church is Russian Orthodox.

The Russians came to Alaska at the start of the 19th Century, drawn by the fur trade and a desire to thwart Britain's global influence. Ultimately financial difficulties forced them to sell Alaska to the US in 1867.

The Russians, Al says, made his people slaves, gave them Christian names like his, which he tells me is Alfred. Like Alfred the Great.

Development of the type foisted on the tribe by outsiders like the Russians has never been welcome.

The villagers are called the Tebughna - the Beach People. They speak an Athabascan dialect called Dena'ina and can trace their origins in the area back 1,000 years.

Their first recorded encounter with Europeans came when tribe members met Captain James Cook in 1778.

Then as now, many natives of Tyonek subsist by hunting and fishing, with salmon from the rivers being a significant part of their diet.

"I've collected fish since I was a baby, eight or nine years old, and worked with my dad," says 61-year-old Frank Standifer, who lives in the village and works as a heavy equipment operator and a subsistence harvester.

"We've had development here before. We always end up going back to fish."

Sitting in the tribal centre building, surrounded by black-and-white pictures of the village down the years, Frank recalls how commercial fishing, oil and timber industries have all come to Tyonek to exploit natural resources.

It has always ended badly, he says.

"I personally have experience with timber and lumber. They came here in the 1970s and promised us jobs. We ended up being labourers, then they fired us."

Al Goozmer believes it will be the same if the coal project goes ahead.

"Those industries left our shores with their pockets full of money and left behind shattered lives and broken promises. Now we see coal as the Godzilla of development here on the west Cook Inlet."

The Chuitna River is not the only place in Alaska that has considerable resources of coal. Alaska is said to have more reserves than the lower 48 states put together.

The US Geological Survey estimates there are more than 4 trillion metric tonnes of coal as a total resource in the state, though how much of this is recoverable is open to question.

Certainly the low sulphur, sub-bituminous coal that is in the Chuitna basin is attractive for export. It contains less carbon and mercury than other types of coal. Shipping it to China makes economic sense, given that Alaska is closer than Australia, currently China's biggest supplier.

PacRim Coal didn't respond to requests for an interview, but according to their website, the company expects to produce around 12 million tonnes of coal per annum, making it more productive than the biggest mine in Russia.

The company promises to make good any damages to the area of the mine. Their website shows several test pits that have been carefully returned to their natural state over a period of years. They also promise to take care of the salmon.

"Utilising techniques successfully implemented in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska dating back to the 1960s, off-channel salmon spawning and rearing habitat will be constructed below the mine area prior to operations to replace the habitat temporarily lost during mining."

The company says that the re-constructed habitat that will be left after the mining operation will mean there will be more spawning and rearing areas than before the project.

Al Goozmer is not convinced.

He says they will discharge seven million gallons of waste water into the Chuitna River every day. He fears the toxic elements will disorient the salmon returning to spawn. When the salmon go, a vital source of protein and a key part of the village culture could be lost.

From the community centre Al takes me on a tour of the rest of the village, past the school built with some of the money that oil companies paid for leases on Tyonek lands back in the 1960s.

"We've been teaching our kids how to fish their whole lives," says Gwen Chickalusion who is a cook at the school and looks after the bountiful community garden.

"If we don't have the fish, the only option will be to go to Anchorage and go shopping - we can't just jump in our trucks and go down the road.

"They say they could reclaim it and make it just like before, but how many years will it take? How many years will I go hungry for moose or fish, if they ever return again?"

While Al says that the vast majority of village residents are against the coal plan, not everyone in the area is so strenuously opposed to the development.

Native governance in Alaska is complicated. While Al Goozmer represents the Native Village of Tyonek, there is also a Tyonek Native Corporation (TNC) that has openly supported PacRim Coal.

Under a settlement reached in 1971, native corporations were formed to own and administer the resources of tribes and villages.

The TNC was set up in this way. It's grown considerably in that time, owning 190,000 acres of land. It holds a wide variety of interests in businesses including aircraft maintenance, information technology services, construction and oilfield support services. It boasts revenues of around $100m a year and a workforce of 1,000.

But there are also villages that are not part of the corporate structure. Some prefer the more collective tribal ownership model rather than the shareholder approach of the corporations.

"Our tribe is right here in Tyonek. The native corporation is pretty much based in Anchorage," explains Frank Standifer. "They have stockholders. We have tribal members. Of course we are the same people but there are differences."

TNC signed agreements with PacRim Coal back in 2010. In a recent comment to Alaska's Department of Natural Resources, it argued that the developers would balance development with environmental care.

"Ensuring continued subsistence and commercial fishing opportunities for our shareholders is a priority. But TNC must also foster economic development and promote jobs for our shareholders. For these reasons, TNC supports responsible coal development, and has supported the Chuitna Coal project."

Others in Alaska also support the idea of developing the state's natural resources. Ninety percent of Alaska's income comes from oil revenues, and there is a strong awareness that other sources of revenue need to be found.

"For the next couple of generations, for the next 20 to 40 years we are still going to be a natural-resource state," says Kara Moriarty from the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

"I would argue that no one does it better, no one does it cleaner than the United States, so I think we have a role to play in showing the rest of the world how our resources can be developed in an environmentally safe manner."

The continued use of fossil fuels like coal will form a key part of the negotiations at the upcoming Paris conference on climate change.

Many in the coal, oil and gas industries are waiting to see the text of an agreement to decide on how they proceed with their investments. If a deal is struck that signals a definitive move away from the use of fossil fuels in the future, then big companies may decide to stop spending money on the recovery of these fuels.

And while China will continue to consume coal for many decades, economic forces made lead to a glut of ever-cheaper coal on the market. In that light, the Chuitna project may not proceed.

Back on Tyonek, another small aircraft trundles to a halt on the shingle runway in the cold, spitting rain.

As we watch, Al tells me he worries that if coal exports to China go ahead, they will rebound badly on Alaska.

"Alaska is the most sensitive area in the world for climate change and we see that every day."

The plane door opens to reveal a young man beside the pilot - Al's nephew Steven, who was paralysed in an accident.

Al rushes forward and lifts him from the plane and into the front seat of his truck.

He speaks about the importance of connection, to his family, to the land, to the water.

"The river is named after my grandfather. One of my uncles was a historian and lay preacher here. He taught me all the old stories of who we are and what we are.

"I don't believe that coal is a vital source of power for the world or anyone," he says.

"It's good right where it is at. Leave it there."

UN climate conference 30 Nov - 11 Dec 2015

COP 21 - the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties - will see more than 190 nations gather in Paris to discuss a possible new global agreement on climate change, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the threat of dangerous warming due to human activities.

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More: BBC News climate change special report


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