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Alaska should encourage new, less-divisive developments, not old coal mines

Steve Haycox

Correction: Upon first publication, the following commentary stated that Riversdale Resources is partly owned by the mining company Rio Tinto, but that is incorrect. The text below has been corrected.

Matanuska Valley residents have witnessed an environmental drama over coal development during the last several years that raises important questions about the direction of Alaska’s energy policy. Riversdale Alaska, a subsidiary of Riversdale Resources, an Australian company, has a 10-year lease on about 10,000 acres of Alaska Mental Health Trust lands around the Native village of Chickaloon, at the east end of the eight-mile long Wishbone Hill coal complex, east of Palmer. Riverside plans both underground and strip mining of the remaining deposit. At the same time, Usibelli Coal has leased about 8,000 acres on the west end of the Wishbone Hill complex, adjacent to the old Jonesville and Eska Mines, just up the road from Sutton. Usibelli contemplates developing its acreage there. And Ranger Alaska, based in Colorado and owned by the Australian uranium giant Black Range Minerals, has a lease on the original Jonesville and Eska Mines.

High interest in Wishbone Hill coal is nothing new. The U.S. Navy operated a mine at Chickaloon from 1918 to 1922; the government maintained an extensive complex of buildings on the site. The Jonesville Mine, owned by a group of Anchorage businessmen headed by Zach Loussac, operated from 1920 to 1968, supplying coal to the Alaska Railroad, and individual customers in Anchorage. An explosion and fire there in 1937 killed 14 men, most of them east European Slavs. The Alaska Railroad owned the nearby Eska Mine, which it kept on standby and brought into service when there were strikes or other problems at the Jonesville Mine. Alaska Railroad sold Eska when it converted its engines to diesel.

In 2012 and 2013 Riversdale acquired permits from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and contracted with Alaska Earth Sciences for two years of exploratory drilling and seismic surveys on its lease. Usibelli submitted air quality control applications to DNR and also obtained exploratory permits. Black Range Mining has not submitted a detailed development plan, probably hoping to sell to Usibelli. If any of these properties is developed, the coal will be trucked to a railhead on the Alaska Railroad, where it will go either to the coal loading facility at Seward, or to the Mat-Su dock in Knik Arm.

Residents of Chickaloon and the surrounding area, and of Sutton and vicinity, have protested the development of these properties on a number of grounds, marching in downtown Palmer on several occasions, writing numerous letters and petitions, opposing approvals by the Mat-Su Borough Assembly, and lodging challenges in court. The prospect of denuded hilltops from strip mining, heavy truck traffic along small, rural roads, and coal dust driven into homes by strong winds are just some of the issues raised. Alaska environmental groups have supported the protests. But other residents of the area, hoping for new jobs, and happy to sell development supplies, applaud the prospects of full-scale coal development.

Unlike classic environmental battles in Alaska, this is not a matter of Outsiders against development and locals supporting it. This conflict has divided communities within Alaska, with large numbers supporting and objecting to development. The main Outsiders aren’t the Sierra Club and other national environmental groups; they’re the global mining consortiums hoping to cash in on coal prospects that already have a history of development.

Whether because of the protests, or for other reasons, Riversdale announced in December that they’re temporarily postponing development. Usibelli has said the same. Black Range is also waiting. But they’re all holding on to their leases.

Even though there was little environmental regulation when these mines were operating decades ago, that’s not the reason for the hold now. Instead, it’s a combination of market conditions and challenging geology. Yet while both thermal (for heating) and coking (for making steel) coal are still used widely today, coal is not the fuel of the future. Contrary to implications in some advertising, there is no such thing as “clean coal.” Clean coal technology captures some CO2 and other greenhouse emissions when coal is burned. Alaska should discourage the redevelopment of these old mines, and instead encourage developmental opportunities that are not divisive of communities, and which reduce rather than contribute to further reliance on fossil fuels, an environmental hazard.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage and regularly contributes commentary to the Anchorage Daily News.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.