Judge’s decision halts Valley mine project

A federal judge’s ruling in a long-standing court action against a Palmer coal mine is being hailed as a win for environmental groups.

Late Thursday, US district court judge Sharon Gleason sided with Castle Mountain Coalition, Cook Inletkeeper and other groups in a case that could determine the validity of Usibelli Coal’s Wishbone Hill mine permits. Gleason’s ruling reverses a decision by the federal Office of Surface Mining which had validated Usibelli’s Wishbone Hill permits. The OSM decision was appealed by the coalition of environmental organizations. Trustees for Alaska attorney Katie Strong argued the case for the plaintiffs.

“So before any coal mining happens out at Wishbone Hill, the state is going to have to fully consider the impacts, both to the surrounding communities and the environment,”  Strong said Thursday.

Strong says if Usibelli wants to mine at the site, the company will have to apply for new permits.

Gleason’s ruling hinges on the phrase “shall terminate” in federal mining statutes. Usibelli did not own the original Wishbone Hill permits, which were first issued in 1991, transferred to a second company in 1994, then transferred to Usibelli in 1997. The plaintiffs challenged the validity of the permits, because under law, they must terminate if no mining occurs within three years of issuance. Strong says the court interpreted a statutory provision and made it clear that the permits automatically terminated in 1996.

“The invalid permits were drafted thirty years ago, and since then millions have been spent on environmental restoration and the neighboring community has blossomed in the meantime, and so now if there is to be new coal mining there has to be a new process to protect the community that exists out there today. ”

Usibelli Coal spokesperson Lorali Simon says the company is disappointed in Gleason’s decision:

“We’re very surprised that the court believes the federal government should make permit decisions over a state program. We are reviewing the decision and certainly examining all of our options before making decisions on our next steps.”

Simon says it’s puzzling as to why permits that have been considered valid for twenty years are suddenly invalidated.

Although Usibelli has not done actual mining at Wishbone Hill, the company has conducted preliminary work on the site under the mining permits.

Simon says Usibelli’s regulating agency is the state Department of Natural resources, and that the company relies on DNR’s permitting decisions.

“What judge Gleason’s ruling does, it goes back to case history prior to Usibelli even owning the leases and permits to the project. So it certainly creates some confusion for us, because we have invested millions of dollars in the Wishbone Hill project operating under the assumption that the regulating authority, the department of natural resources, had issued a permit for this project.”

The state of Alaska and Usibelli were intervenors in the case, on the side of OSM. Gleason’s ruling has implications for the state, which has primacy over coal mining regulations in Alaska. It is possible for OSM to appeal the district court decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.