DNR Backing Wishbone Hill Permits

The state Department of Natural Resources is backing the validity of permits issued to Usibelli Coal for its Wishbone Hill project. The state is taking a strong stand against the federal Office of Surface Management, while upholding the primacy of Alaska over its coal mining program and permitting decisions.

The dispute over the Wishbone Hill coal permits has been going on for months. Residents near the proposed coal mine near Sutton in the Matanuska Valley have filed complaints against the project with both state and federal authorities, citing health and pollution concerns. Opponents of the coal mine also have called into question the validity of the Usibelli permits. Last month, the federal Office of Surface Management, which monitors coal mining, sent a letter to the state Department of Natural Resources, mining, land and water division, giving DNR a 10-day notice in which to provide documentary proof of the validity of the permits. Friday, the state made public its response.

“We have provided them information that we believe shows that the permits are still valid and we are upholding the validity of those permits,” DNR deputy commissioner Ed Fogels said. “We have also determined that the permits need additional baseline information to fill some gaps and we have directed Usibelli not to do any work on site until those gaps are filled.”

At issue is how extensions of time to begin actual mining must be documented in the permit file. The original permits were issued in 1991, and have been transferred and granted extensions for their use in a series of actions since then. DNR has sent OSM a 24-page letter outlining the permits history in minute detail.

“There’s a provision in the coal regulations that requires that we grant the permittee an extension of time to mine, and so the argument is about how that was documented,” Fogels said. “And though we don’t have clear documentation for that extension and for some of those renewals, we simply don’t believe that because that documentation is not explicit, that those permits are invalid.”

DNR contends the greater issue is the intrusion of OSM into the state’s permitting process, and the use of the ten day notice procedure to do so. Fogels says OSM’s actions could have troubling consequences.

“For the business climate in Alaska, if a company is to invest in either whether it a mine or an oil and gas project, or any other kind of project, they need some kind of certainty that once we shoot them their permits, we’re not going to come back years later and invalidate them,” Fogels said.

Usibelli spokeswoman Lorali Carter applauded the state’s actions, saying Friday’s letter cautions OSM, “to stop their extreme over reach into the state’s program.”

Carter says OSM has inspected the mine site on many occasions, and has issued favorable reports related to Wishbone Hill. She says OSM’s action, “undermines the entire concept of a reliable permit.”

Although Usibelli has postponed plans for coal exploration there for the time being, Carter says the company intends to continue mining operations in the future at Wishbone Hill. Both the state and Usibelli must now await OSM’s response.

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