Several environmental groups, including the Castle Mountain Coalition and the Sierra Club, on March 18 filed a lawsuit in Alaska against the U.S. Office of Surface Mining over permitting for a coal mine project.
The lawsuit was filed at the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska and ostensibly seeks to protect people from the alleged harms of unpermitted surface coal mining operations occurring at the Wishbone Hill Mine in violation of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 and the Alaska Surface Coal Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
The lawsuit said that coal mining permits 01-89-796 and 02-98-796 were originally issued to a company to conduct surface coal mining operations at Wishbone Hill in 1991. The federal and state mining laws mandate that permits automatically terminate if the permittee does not commence operations within three years or obtain an extension of time to do so. “However, no operations took place until 201,” said the lawsuit. “While the permittee obtained an extension in 1994 allowing it two additional years to begin operations, no permittee obtained a lawful extension at any time after that. Therefore, the coal mining permits 01-89-796 and 02-98-796 terminated by operation of law in 1996.”
In a preliminary decision, OSM found that the permits issued for mining at Wishbone Hill had terminated by operation of law and that it appeared that the operations were illegal. However, in its final decision, OSM reversed itself on the question of law, determining that SMCRA and ASCMCRA do not mandate automatic termination for permits if the permittee fails to begin surface coal mining operations. According to OSM, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources had good cause for not taking corrective action to remedy the violation.
The Wishbone Hill Mine is located in the Matanuska Valley within the Matanuska-Susitna Borough near Sutton, Alaska. The lawsuit noted that in 1997, the subject permits were “purportedly” transferred to Usibelli Coal Mine Inc., Alaska’s only current coal producer.
“In June of 2010, Usibelli began 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,” said the lawsuit. “The haul road is designed to be approximately three miles long and disturb approximately 22 acres. 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.”