WASILLA --The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation this week approved a pivotal and long-sought air quality permit for a controversial proposed coal mine near Sutton.
The permit, issued Tuesday, marks a significant step forward for Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. and its Wishbone Hill coal mine and processing operation. It allows Usibelli to build a coal handling plant and five-ton-per-hour rock crusher, both crucial to the operation. The company still needs to resolve issues with a state Department of Natural Resources mining permit before proceeding.
A vocal coalition of residents have opposed the mine and the ADEC approval for them was a defeat. The state received 691 comments on the mine earlier this year. About 500 came from opponents, critics of the project say. Coal dust, which has been linked to lung diseases, has been a particular concern.
The proposed mine -- located east of Moose Creek and eight miles northeast of Palmer -- would sit within a mile of 900 people in the Buffalo Mine Road area.
Jamey Duhamel, program director of the 7,000-member nonprofit Castle Mountain Coalition, called the state's permit decision "mind boggling" and driven by political pressure rather than science.
Usibelli's permit application suggests it would take unusually high winds to send coal dust flying off stockpiles, a contention that scientists affiliated with his group say "makes no sense," Duhamel said.
"Our main concern is they plan on having very large, uncovered coal piles as well as blasting," she said. "They have made no indication they would shut down during major wind events."
The purpose of the air quality permit is to prevent harmful levels of dust or emissions from leaving the area, Usibelli officials said in a statement. Palmer-based Usibelli representatives did not return calls for comment in time for this story.
"Alaska has some of the most stringent air quality standards in the world," Lorali Simon, Usibelli's vice president of external affairs, said in the statement. "It has taken over five years to secure this minor permit, however, the rigorous requirements for a permit illustrate Alaska's commitment to protecting public health and the environment."
The company says the mine would create between 75 and 100 jobs. The Wishbone Hill deposit is thought to hold about 14 million tons of identified reserve.
Usibelli tried three times before to get an air quality permit, state officials say.
The company withdrew a 2009 application prior to DEC's technical review, according to Aaron Simpson, a permit writer in the state Division of Air Quality. Usibelli also withdrew applications filed in 2010 and 2011 after air quality program staff found problems with some of the company's scientific models.
This time around, DEC "after careful review" determined the company's models met national and state regulatory standards, Simpson said. "The department has a regulatory obligation to issue the permit."
Opponents say when predicting the amount of dust already in the air around the mine site, Usibelli relied on particulate data from Eagle River instead of Palmer, where grit-laden winds off the Matanuska Glacier howl through town. That could downplay the risk that the combination of mine dust and airborne dust could violate clean air standards. They also called 1990 weather data used in the permit process too old and incomplete to predict air quality impacts from proposed operations.
The state approved the Eagle River data because there's more dust-creating traffic there than around Wishbone, and seasonal particulate patterns are similar to those in Palmer, according to a 59-page response to public comments posted on the DEC web site. The state previously rejected the 1990 weather information but accepted it this time after data gaps were resolved, the state response says.
The permit addresses multiple mine operations including windblown coal dust from the 168-acre mine area and coal stockpiles, as well as dirt and dust from mining operations or trucks hauling coal across the site.
The permit limits Usibelli, among other things, to one blasting operation per day between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., requires daily inspections of coal stockpiles, and restricts public access in areas of active mining. It also calls for the application of dust-control agents like calcium chloride on mine roads and a 25 mph speed limit.
The next step for the project involves Usibelli's surface mining permit. The Federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation in 2012 held that Usibelli's decades-old permit was no longer valid.
Usibelli acquired leases and permits to Wishbone Hill in 1997. A 2010 feasibility study was promising but the market has since softened, the company's statement says. Usibelli is working toward renewal of the DNR mining permit and will take "a fresh look at market conditions" to determine the future of the project.
There is a 15-day appeal period for anyone who submitted a written comment to request an informal review through the air quality program director and a separate process to request a judicial hearing from the DNR commissioner.
Reach Zaz Hollander at email@example.com or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER