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Usibelli withdraws permit request for Sutton coal mine

Casey Grove

The leaseholder for a controversial coal mine proposed in the Matanuska Valley has withdrawn its application for a state air quality permit for a second time, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation and the company, Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc.

It's another delay for the Wishbone Hill project, where Usibelli hopes to soon produce up to 500,000 tons of coal a year. The longtime Alaska coal-mining company produces about 2 million tons per year, which it feeds to six electric power plants in the state and sells to Chile, Japan and South Korea.

The 800 acres for which Usibelli is currently seeking permits sit between Palmer and Sutton and, opponents say, within a mile of more than 100 homes. Since all the state's coal needs can be met by the Usibelli mine in Healy, farther to the north in Interior Alaska, the company says coal from Wishbone Hill would be sold overseas, likely to a power company in Japan.

A Usibelli spokeswoman said Friday the company pulled the application because the state asked for more data on the possibility of windblown dust. Revamping the application is simply a necessary part of the "give and take" involved in the permitting process and doesn't indicate a loss of interest in the project, said Lorali Simon, Usibelli's external affairs manager.

"We are marching forward with our feasibility study on further developing Wishbone Hill," Simon said.

But opponents of the strip mine -- who have complained that blasting and strong local winds will kick up harmful coal dust and hurt nearby residents -- say the withdrawn application shows the mining company is worried it can't meet the state's clean air requirements, said Jeremiah Millen, director of Friends of Mat-Su, a group focused on land use in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys.

"We're counting it as a short-term victory that the public's concerns have been vindicated," Millen said.

In the recent past, Usibelli has made public presentations that lean on positive economic impact from job creation and ignore any possible negative health impact, Millen said. The withdrawn application also indicates the mine wasn't taking residents' health concerns seriously with its previous incomplete or misleading applications, he said.

"They try to deny that coal dust is harmful at all," he said. "We're talking constant blasting, two times a day, coal dust funneling down the Matanuska Valley. People are very concerned about it."

There was nothing incomplete about the applications, said Usibelli's Simon.

"That's untrue," she said. "It's yet another falsehood from these fringe environmental organizations."

The DEC asked that Usibelli's consultants provide additional statistical modeling for wind and airborne particulate matter, Simon said. And Usibelli is working to provide that data soon, she said, because the company wants to have the best and most current information in its application to the state regulators.

"Nobody wants to get sued," Simon said.

Current plans to minimize dust from Wishbone Hill include covering the loads coal trucks will carry and watering the roads they use to keep down the dust, she said.

As an example of Usibelli's success producing coal for the state, Simon pointed to the town of Healy. Usibelli has safely operated a much larger coal mine there for almost 70 years, she said.

"The important thing is what you don't see there," Simon said. "You don't see clouds of coal dust. You don't hear constant blasting. You don't see traffic jams."

Simon also disagreed with Millen's characterization of the land around Wishbone Hill as a residential area. Historically, it's been a mining district going back to 1916, Simon said. The Wishbone Hill area has been under mining leases since the 1960s, leases Usibelli acquired in 1997, she said.

"It's not as if we're moving into a residential area. The residential area grew up around a mining district," Simon said.

And the locals stand to benefit, she said. The mine is expected to create 75 to 125 high-paying jobs, Simon said. The average annual wage for a miner is about $94,000, more than the average wage for other types of jobs in Alaska, she said.

If the permits are in place and Usibelli management decides to go forward, the Wishbone Hill project could be up and running in 18 months to two years, Simon said. The company had hoped to make an announcement this fall about plans for the mine, but setbacks with its feasibility study -- including the extra work on the air quality permit -- have delayed that, she said.

"This minor permit is under more scrutiny than any other minor permits in the state," Simon said.

Millen says there is no amount of permitting for the mine or explanation from Usibelli that will put his fears, and those of hundreds of others in the valley, to rest.

"With this particular proposal, no. And it goes back to location," Millen said. "I think it's fair to say that because of the location of this mine, the public does not feel confident that the existing permitting process can mitigate what the impacts could be."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
Anchorage Daily News