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State of Alaska challenges Feds on Wishbone Hill coal mine permit validity

Suzanna Caldwell

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources is pushing back against a federal agency that questions the validity of Wishbone Hill coal mine permits.

A letter from Brent Goodrum, director of the Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water, to the Office of Surface Mining (OSM), questions the validity of the federal agency’s recent review of Wishbone Hill permits. The state had until Friday to present additional information verifying the permits, according to the federal agency.

The mine, located in the Matanuska Valley near Sutton, is in the process of being developed by Usibelli Coal Mine. Several weeks ago, the OSM said procedural missteps appeared to have caused the permit to lapse in 1996. If it did, Usibelli would face a far more complex and costly effort to secure a permit in area that has changed significantly over the past two decades.

But Goodrum contended the OSM is ignoring 16 years of "permit renewal decisions, inspections and recent operations conducted under the permit," all conducted by the state Department of Natural Resources. His letter goes on to say that OSM has no authority to use the “10-day notice” process, under which the state has a limited amount of time to respond to issues involving permits.

Opponents of the mine called the earlier action by OSM a victory, affirming their argument that permits had lapsed years ago and, therefore, the state had no ability to renew them. Usibelli disagreed, saying the permits were always valid. It characterized OSM efforts as another example of the anti-coal Obama administration caving in to extreme environmental organizations.

“Usibelli appreciates the fortitude of the Parnell administration to continue to fight for state’s rights, and for pointing out all of OSM’s involvement in Wishbone Hill over the years -- from inspections to annual reports praising the state’s process,” Usibelli Coal Mine spokeswoman Lorali Simon said in a press release.

Opponents include the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council and environmental groups in the area. They contend that since the original permits were issued, a community has grown up in the area, and an operating coal mine could harm the health of hundreds of families.

Even though the federal deadline has passed, "DNR is continuing to search archived information,” according to Goodrum. “Additional updates to this response will be made if appropriate upon review of archived information."

So what happens next?

Russell Kirkham, Alaska’s coal program manager, said the federal agency will review the findings and respond. Kirkham said that could take weeks or months.

In another letter sent Thursday to Usibelli, the state requested more information from the company before it would renew the permits. No additional development work is authorized under the permit until DNR has reviewed and approved all changes to the design of sediment-and-drainage-control structures.

In an email, Goodrum said this course of action is based on public input and careful review of the permit renewal application as well as baseline environmental data supplied by the Department of Natural Resources. Among the concerns Natural Resources heard were that the baseline data is no longer adequate to describe the change in use and environmental factors around the Wishbone Hill area, he wrote.

There are currently two pending lawsuits in federal and state court questioning the validity of Wishbone Hill permits issued by Natural Resources, Goodrum noted.

The Wishbone Hill coal mine could contain up to 6 million tons of coal, according to figures from Usibelli, of which about 500,000 tons could be extracted annually.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com