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Citizens clamor to shut down Wishbone Hill coal mine in Sutton

Jill Burke
The site of Usibelli's Wishbone Hill coal mine project in the Matanuska Valley on Wednesday, May 2, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The site of Usibelli's Wishbone Hill coal mine project in the Matanuska Valley on Wednesday, May 2, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The site of Usibelli's Wishbone Hill coal mine project in the Matanuska Valley on Wednesday, May 2, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The site of Usibelli's Wishbone Hill coal mine project in the Matanuska Valley on Wednesday, May 2, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo

In the Matanuska Valley north of Anchorage, a coal mine more than 20 years in the making may have struck an obstacle it cannot overcome -- citizens intent on stopping the project. By studying the mine's thick paper trail, they've dug up a problem they think could be the holy grail of citizen activism.

The groups believe the mine doesn't have a valid permit and hasn't since 1996.

If that's true, the mine will have to stop operations. The groups have gone to court, saying government watchdogs at all levels have failed to remedy the situation after being alerted months ago. The mine believes it will withstand the citizen assault, characterizing the legal attack in court as an unsurprising, tired-but-effective ploy for anti-development activists. 

"We are very confident that we have followed all of the rules in law and regulation through the legitimate permitting process," Usibelli spokesperson Lorali Simon said Thursday. Learning something different -- that their permitting had somehow gone awry -- would be "very shocking," she said.  

Wishbone Hill is estimated to hold about 14 million tons of coal reserves. It's the smallest of Usibelli Coal Mine's fields -- just two miles wide and eight miles long. But it’s also one in which the company sees the greatest development potential because of the quality of the coal and its location near the road system.

The Alaskan-owned company has operated in Alaska's interior for decades. Its Healy plant produces 2 million tons of coal a year. Half of that output stays in Alaska to feed six coal-fired power plants throughout the region. The other half gets sent to Chile, South Korea and Japan. Coal from Wishbone Hill, if the project comes on line, will be exported.

The state has renewed the Wishbone Hill permit three times since it was first approved in 1991. But the five plaintiffs -- Friends of Mat-Su, Castle Mountain Coalition, Cook Inlet Keeper, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club -- claim every renewal has been illegal, citing the lapse of the original permits in 1996. A lapsed permit cannot be renewed, they claim.

In a case that has become the bureaucratic paper equivalent of a crime-drama autopsy, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which typically allows the state to manage oversight of surface mining operations, is actively looking into whether the permit is properly deemed dead or alive.

"We are working hard to arrive at a decision. It is a complex case," said Kenneth Walker, a regional division manager for the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement in Denver.

When his department received notice from the citizen groups of the suspected problem with the mine's permits, the agency sent something called a "10-day notice" to Alaska, asking the state to defend its permitting decisions. The state has since responded with a chronology of the life of the permits and the "facts, figures and events" that have gone into decision-making at each stage, he said.

Along those lines, the state has sent a letter to Trustees for Alaska, the attorneys representing the citizen groups, outlining why it believes there is no issue with the permits. A renewal or extension of the original permits was requested, went through a public notice process and was approved in October 1996, according to the state's timeline.

Prove it, say Friends of Mat-Su and the other four plaintiffs.

Since 1991, the original permits have been transferred to different owners and a variety of extensions and renewals have been authorized. Usibelli didn't take over ownership of the permits until 1997, one year after the citizen groups claim the permits expired. Nothing had been done to develop the mine during the five-year term of the first two permits and no extensions had been sought. Therefore, the groups claim, the permits died -- a serious problem for the future of coal development at the site.

"If the permits are not valid, then they [Usibelli Mine] are not authorized to mine out there," Walker said.

The Wishbone Hill project is currently operating under a temporary extension of a permit renewal that expired in November 2011. Because Usibelli had, in May 2011, previously asked for an extension, it's allowed to keep operating until a final decision is made. There is no limit to the number of permit extensions a company can seek. 

Even if the Interior Department backs the state's position that the permits are valid, the citizens opposed to the mine have no intention of letting up. They believe Wishbone Hill is an "absolutely inappropriate place for a mine," according to Jeremiah Millen, executive director of Friends of Mat-Su. A lot more people live in the area than in the 1980s when the impacts of the original project was assessed, and the area is popular for hiking, fishing and hunting. Millen believes the site will have a much more difficult time getting approval for mining in 2012 than it did in 1991.

In a prepared statement, his group and other Mat-Su residents say they're worried about a strip mine near residential neighborhoods due to "noise and light pollution, toxic coal dust, and impacts to property values."

Simon calls the effort by citizen groups to stop the mine "a classic case of the vocal minority getting more attention than the silent majority." Several community and borough leaders have endorsed the project. Last fall, a member of the Mat-Su Borough Assembly referred to the mine as a "God-given resource," and there has been support for the estimated 125 jobs a fully operational mine will bring.

Even if the federal government and the state uphold the permits, there's no guarantee the mine will be a go, Simon said. Usibelli's board of directors is still mulling over whether it makes finanical sense, pencilling out the cost of building a new mine against how much the coal will fetch on the global market. 

Since 2010, Usibelli has put in a haul road and gravel pad, transported topsoil to the site, and started logging and clearing vegetation. In addition to trying to shut down work at the mine, the plaintiffs want the mining company to restore the site's terrain to its pre-construction condition.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com