Enviro groups seek halt to Usibelli Coal work at Wishbone Hill

Several environmental groups filed a May 1 lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in an attempt to stop Usibelli Coal Mine Inc., currently Alaska’s only coal producer, from mining the new Wishbone Hill strip job.

The plaintiffs, including Friends of Mat-Su and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, also filed a May 3 preliminary injunction request with the court to stop Usibelli from current work at the site while the case is argued out. The court had taken no action as of May 4.        

The lawsuit claims that old mining permits for the Wishbone Hill site have lapsed, meaning the company doesn’t have a valid permit in violation of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 and Alaska’s federally-approved state regulatory program. The Wishbone Hill mine is located in the Matanuska Valley within the Matanuska-Susitna Borough near Sutton.

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued the Wishbone Hill mine permits (permits 01-89-796 and 02-98-796) in September 1991 to Idemitsu Alaska, the lawsuit said. The term of the original permits was five years. The permittee did not commence surface coal mining operations within the first three years of the permit term. The permittee requested an extension of time to start operations until the expiration of the original five-year permit term, in September 1996. DNR granted this extension. In September 1995, DNR approved the transfer of the permits from Idemitsu Alaska to North Pacific Mining. North Pacific Mining did not commence surface coal mining operations by September 1996 and no additional extensions of time were requested or granted by September 1996, or anytime thereafter, in accordance with legal requirements, the lawsuit claimed. In 1997, the permits were transferred to Usibelli.

Surface coal mining operations did not commence at Wishbone Hill until June 2010, the lawsuit said. “Since June 2010, surface coal mining operations conducted at Wishbone Hill have included, but are not limited to, constructing and widening the haul road, constructing a gravel pad for equipment staging, paving the first two hundred feet of the haul road, stockpiling topsoil, and logging and vegetation clearing along the entire haul road from the Glenn Highway to the project site,” the lawsuit added. “The haul road is designed to be approximately three miles long and disturb approximately 22 acres. Usibelli, either by its own efforts or by contracting for services with other companies, has conducted or caused these surface coal mining operations to be conducted. The plan of operations for the Wishbone Hill Mine indicates that after the haul road is complete enough to bring other construction equipment to the site, Usibelli will begin construction of the coal washing plant and begin topsoil and overburden removal operations in Mine Area 1.”

Friends of Mat-Su became aware of the alleged invalidity of the permits in or around September 2011, said the lawsuit. Friends of Mat-Su raised this concern with DNR and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, requesting that the agencies require Usibelli to cease operations until such time as Usibelli obtains a valid permit for coal mining operations at Wishbone Hill. “To date, neither agency has granted this request and Usibelli’s unpermitted and illegal operations continue,” the lawsuit added.

A May 2 Associated Press report quotes an Usibelli representative as saying the company and the state believe the permits are currently valid.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.