Future of Wishbone Hill coalmine uncertain as permit is examined

An Alaska Native tribal council and environmental groups are applauding the decision by a federal agency to inspect the permit for a planned coalmine near Palmer.

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The decision from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement comes after a federal judge ruled the mine’s permit invalid last summer.

On Jan. 17, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSM, told the Alaska Department of Natural Resources that it erred in extending the permit of Wishbone Hill Mine east of Palmer, which is owned by Usibelli Coal. OSM also told the state that it plans to inspect the mine’s permit. This move is the latest in a battle over the validity of Wishbone Hill’s permit that has lasted for more than five years.

Numerous environmental groups were involved in the lawsuit that led to last week’s letter, including Cook Inletkeeper, Castle Mountain Coalition, the Sierra Club and others. In addition, Chickaloon Tribal Council is opposed to the development of Wishbone Hill Mine.  Council member Lisa Wade said the Council believes the mine would negatively impact the lives of people who rely on the land.

“It is right across from our tribal school,” Wade said. “It’s right in the middle of moose habitat that is really an important area to us. Also, we’ve spent millions of dollars repairing Moose Creek from coal mining in the last era.”

Wade said Chickaloon Tribal Council is concerned about stewardship of the land and maintaining traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices. She said those practices are about more than putting food on the table.

“When I go out and we do fish camp together, we’re doing this in a communal way, in a very respectful way, and a very honoring way,” Wade said. “It’s something we believe that we’re supposed to do, because if you don’t actually participate in stewardship of your environment, some of those foods may no longer be available to you, so it’s intricately connected to our spirituality, our beliefs.”

Chickaloon Tribal Council and the environmental organizations against Wishbone Hill have been trying to get it shut down since 2011. Last summer, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that the mine’s permit was not valid. Brook Brisson, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska, said the permit was ruled invalid because of the time elapsed between its issuance in 1991 and the start of mining.  Trustees for Alaska represented some of the plaintiffs in the case.

“The law says if you don’t start mining in three years, the permit terminates, and Usibelli didn’t start mining until 2010, long after the permit expired,” Brisson said.

Brook Brisson said that, if OSM determines Usibelli was conducting mining operations without a valid permit, then it could shut down Wishbone Hill.

Russel Kirkham, Coal Regulatory Program Manager for DNR, explains the process that led from Judge Gleason’s original decision to the letter from OSM.

“Usibelli and the state asked for reconsideration from Judge Gleason,” Gleason said. “She upheld her decision. Going forward, we provided additional information and OSM submitted their response.”

The Department of Natural Resources has until the end of the week to respond to the decision. Kirkham said DNR is considering its options, but adds that he believes OSM did not address all of the information provided by the state.

Usibelli Coal maintains that it has done nothing wrong.  Lorali Simon, Vice President of External Affairs for Usibelli, said the letter from the Office of Surface Mining is one step of a longer process, and that the company plans to move forward.

“Right now, I would say Usibelli Coal Mine is still committed to the further development of the Wishbone Hill Mine, and we will continue to work through the process to make sure that the permits are in place,” Simon said.

The timing of OSM’s decision introduces unknowns into the next steps of the process.  The decision was made under the administration of Barack Obama, just a few days before the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Simon believes OSM’s actions were politically motivated.

“The timing on this letter is not lost on us,” Simon said. “This is yet another bomb hurled by the Obama administration in their efforts to stop coal mining across the country.”

None of the parties interviewed were willing to speculate on what might change under the new administration.