Federal coal mining rule angers operator

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The operator of Alaska’s only coal mine is speaking out against a new Obama administration water protection rule for the industry. Healy-based Usibelli coal mine saw the Stream Protection Rule as an attack on the industry.

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The Stream Protection Rule issued by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement updates over 30-year-old regulations for mining near water, but Usibelli Coal Mine spokeswoman Lorali Simon maintains the rule is not about improving operations.

”This rule was absolutely crafted and designed to put the coal industry out of business,” Simon said.

Department of the Interior officials would not comment on the new Stream Protection Rule, but a department press release said it lays out: “reasonable and straight forward reforms” covering coal mining near streams, including requirements for water quality monitoring and restoration. The department said the rule is the product of a process that began in 2009, and included “150,000 written comments and statements, 15 open houses and public meetings and extensive outreach to stakeholders nationwide”.

Usibelli’s Simon countered that the process ended earlier this year without sufficient opportunity for the coal industry to respond.

”We just thought it was absolutely laughable because the federal government gave the public 100 days to digest nearly 3,000 pages – the proposed rule, the EIS and supporting documents,” Simon said.

Simon added that, unlike its predecessor, the new rule does not account for unique mining conditions in Alaska — like permafrost and surface waters frozen for much of the year. Simon called it ”a one-size-fits-all to coal mining.”

“So they took this rule, which we believe they kinda tried to target Appalachia, and then they just smeared it across the entire country,” Simon said.

State regulators charged with implementing the new rule, and environmental groups, say they are still assessing it, but Kenta Tsuda with Earth Justice in Juneau points to what he claims is the basic importance of the new rule in Alaska.

“In this state, coal deposits are, in many cases, coinciding with salmon spawning streams,” Tsuda said.

Tsuda does not identify any concerns with Usibelli’s long-operating coal mine near Healy, but said the proposed Chuitna coal project near Cook Inlet is in an area with numerous salmon streams — streams that the new rule may fall short of adequately protecting.

”It may be a step in the right direction, but we’re concerned it’s not as strong as necessary to make sure that coal-mining is not allowed within salmon streams here in Alaska.”

The Stream Protection Rule takes effect the day before President Obama cedes office to Donald Trump — an ardent supporter of the coal industry — and Usibelli’s Simon said the company is optimistic the rule will be overturned. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Congress will work to change it.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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