Usibelli Coal Mine

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Founded in 1943, the Usibelli Coal Mine (UCM), located near Healy, has been Alaska's only operational coal mine since 1971. UCM produces approximately 1.5 million tons of coal per year, which it supplies to six Interior Alaska power plants and exports to South Korea and several other Pacific Rim destinations.[1] Usibelli was the coal supplier and a financial partner in the currently-defunct Healy Clean Coal Plant and is currently exploring the option of expanding their mining operations to the Wishbone Hill Coal Mine[2] coal deposit near Sutton, AK.[3].

It was reported in September 2011 that the Usibelli Coal Mine was increasing coal production from 10,000 tons a year to 2 million tons a year. Much of the coal will be exported to Asian markets through Alaska's Port of Seward.[4]

In late July 2012 the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining questioned Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.’s permit to conduct coal mining at Wishbone Hill and requested more information from the Department of Natural Resources. In a letter the agency stated that there was trouble with Usibelli’s permit to mine because its permits for surface coal mining operations were issued for a term of five years, but the permit is terminated if the permittee does not begin surface coal mining operations within three years after the permit is issued.[5]

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Citizen Opposition

In June 2010 members of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council stated that they plan to "do everything we have to do to impede progress of the road, mine and exploration activities" planned by Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. north of Palmer, Alaska. The company is considering mining a lease they hold called Wishbone Hill. Usibelli Coal estimates that the lease holds about "10 million tons of coal, enough to operate a mine for 12 to 20 years and employ 75 to 125 workers." The company began building a 2.7 mile road to the site in June 2010. The company plans to begin production in 2012.

Wishbone Resident Opposes Mine.

Area tribal leaders and other local citizens organized a protest stating that Moose Creek, which runs next to the proposed mine, is a cultural and religious symbol for the people.[6]

On June 15, 2010 citizens protested in downtown Palmer, Alaska prior to the Mat-Su Borough Assembly's vote on whether or not to extend Usibelli's permit to move forward with the proposed mine. The Assembly voted 6-1 to extend the permit, which will expire in five years.[7]

In December 2010, Healy-based Denali Citizens Council filed a lawsuit challenging state approval for a Usibelli Coal Mine plan to look for coalbed methane near Healy, citing concern over the state's failure to protect sensitive public lands they want exempted from the permit. The group objected to a June 2010 decision by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources allowing Usibelli to explore inside a 200,000-acre perimeter. If the company discovers methane gas in the area, it would need to follow a separate permitting process before development. The licensed area includes a combination of public and private land surrounding the Parks Highway between miles 248 and 300, roughly between Healy and Rex in which the state owns mineral rights.[8]

A public meeting to discuss the proposed Wishbone Hill Coal Mine project by the Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. took place on September 8, 2011 in Alaska. While some at the meeting supported the mine prospect because of potential job creation, many others stated they were opposed to the mine because of environmental and health concerns. The mine is to be located about 50 miles northeast of Anchorage.

"I have no problem with people wanting jobs," said Diana Ramsted. "But, I do have a problem — a big problem — with the wind in Palmer: the wind here that's going to take coal from where the Wishbone Hill is and blow it into children's lungs."[9]

In another public meeting to discuss the Wishbone Hill Coal Mine, approximately 300 people gathered, the majority of which attended to voice concerns about the proposed mine, noting health concerns.[10]

Chickaloon tribe turn to international law

Claim with UN

In February 2011, the Alaska Public Radio Network reported that Alaska's Chickaloon tribe had filed a document to the United Nations' independent expert on water and sanitation, calling the mine a violation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The tribe said the proposed mine site is where its members have traditionally hunted and fished. The tribe also said the mine could pollute Moose Creek, which has been restored for salmon spawning.[11]

Claim with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

In May 2011, the Chickaloon Native Village and its governing body, the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development alleging that the exploratory activities of the Usibelli Coal Mine were adversely affecting ancestral lands of the Athabascan Ahtna indigenous peoples of Alaska. The official complaint was filed against Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. and Electric Power Development Co., Ltd, alleging that UCM's activity in 2010, based on permit application information more than 20 years old, did not take into account the incrase in population of the area in recent years. Pursuant to what the Chickaloo Native Village referred to as "stale and misleading permits," UCM built a coal hauling road 100 yards from the traditional council's tribal school, Ya Ne Dah Ah School, prompting safety concerns that the complaint said were also not considered.[12]

Jonesville permit renewal withdrawn

On July 6, 2011, a state agency withdrew a decision to renew a permit to develop the Jonesville coal mine near Chickaloon after finding that it needed to respond to comment from Alaska Natives, who have spent more than $1 million restoring salmon streams damaged by decades of coal mining.

This is not the Wishbone Hill coal lease area sought by Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc, but directly borders it. It has been speculated, however, that Ranger Alaska, LLC, who owns the Jonesville lease, had hopes of eventually selling the lease to Usibelli once obtaining mining permits. A third lease area, referred to as the Chickaloon lease, leased by the Alaska Mental Health Trust, is Northeast of Jonesville and Wishbone Hill and still requires multiple permits. The original Forbes article cited here did not clarify this.

The Chickaloon Village Traditional Council is among several groups (which make up the Mat Valley Coalition) opposed to a resumption of coal mining operations north of Palmer near streams and creeks that feed the Matanuska River. The council appealed a renewal permit granted by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources allowing Ranger Alaska, LLC of Golden, Colo., to operate a surface strip and underground coal mine. Geoffrey Stauffer, the lawyer representing the Chickaloon tribe, said that DNR failed to adequately respond to public comments about the mine and that the state should have required Ranger Alaska to apply for a new permit, which would have required a new look at the project, including all the work the tribe has done to restore salmon streams damaged by past mining, he said.[13]

Mine fined $60,000 for violations

On January 20, 2011, the EPA announced that the Usibelli Coal Mine had agreed to pay $60,000 for Clean Water Act violations at the mine. According to documents associated with the case, the Mine had 11 unpermitted discharges into the Nenana River, Hoseanna Creek, Sanderson Creek, and Francis Creek between April 2007 and July 2010. During that time, they also had 10 violations of their discharge permit limits. According to Edward Kowalski, Director of EPA’s Regional Office of Compliance and Enforcement: “Many of these discharges could have been minimized or avoided. By simply using and maintaining best management practices, we believe this penalty could have been avoided. Mining responsibly means making water quality protection a top priority.” Sanderson Creek, Hoseanna Creek, Francis Creek, and nearby gravel ponds are all classified by the State of Alaska as suitable for use as water supply, water recreation, and growth and propagation of fish, shellfish, other aquatic life, and wildlife.[14]

Mine Data

  • MSHA ID: 5000030
  • Operator: Usibelli Coal Mine Inc
  • Controller: Joseph E Usibelli
  • Union: TEAM
  • County: Yukon-Koyukuk
  • State: AK
  • Latitude: 63.92
  • Longitude: -149.26
  • 2007 Production (short tons): 1,323,560
  • Coal Type: Bituminous
  • Mining Method: Surface
  • Mine Status: Active
  • Average No. of Employees: 99

Resources

References

  1. Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc.
  2. Alaska's Wild Resource Web: Wishbone Hill Coal Mine
  3. Anchorage Daily News, March 17, 2010
  4. "Asian demand sparks surge in Alaska mining projects" Manuel Quinones, E&E Reporter, September 12, 2011.
  5. "Federal review questions Wishbone Hill mining permits" Frontiersman.com, July 23, 2012.
  6. "Village council vows to block Wishbone Hill coal project" Rindi White, Anchorage Daily News, June 10, 2010.
  7. "Permit extended for proposed Alaska coal mine" Anchorage Daily News, June 16, 2010.
  8. "Environmentalists sue over coal-bed gas permit" Anchorage Daily News, Dec. 14, 2010.
  9. "Public crowds meeting on proposed Sutton coal mine" Chron.com, September 7, 2011.
  10. "Coal Mine Opponents, Supporters Gather In Sutton For Last Public Comment Hearing" Jason Lamb, KTUU.com, November 15, 2011.
  11. "Alaska tribe takes coal mine concerns to UN" AP, Feb. 25, 2011.
  12. "Chickaloon Natives file complaint against Usibelli Coal Mine" The Cordova Times, May 18, 2011.
  13. Mary Pemberton, "Alaska puts coal mine renewal permit on hold" Forbes, July 7, 2011.
  14. "Usibelli Coal Mine, near Healy, Alaska, agrees to pay $60,000 EPA penalty for Clean Water Act violations" EPA, Jan. 20, 2011.

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