A citizens group was in federal court Tuesday to ask a judge to prevent a company from digging a coal mine in an area the group asserts is better suited for Alaska tourism.
The group Friends of the Mat-Su is asking U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick to pull the plug on Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.'s plan for the Wishbone Hill mine near Sutton and find its state-issued permits invalid.
But Usibelli maintains that project permits issued by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources are valid. Usibelli lawyer Jim Leik told the court that if the group has a problem with them, it should take its complaint to the permitting agency.
He encouraged Sedwick not to find the permits invalid, and avoid casting an atmosphere of "instability" around the state permitting process in a move Leik said would discourage economic development.
Friends of the Mat-Su argues that the permits for the mine are invalid. The permits were first issued in 1991 to another company and then transferred to yet another company in 1995. Usibelli took the permits over in 1997. Friends of the Mat-Su maintain the company failed to properly maintain them and therefore, the initial permit became invalid in 1996, despite the state issuing permit renewals.
The fight over the permits heated up in July when the federal Office of Surface Mining informed DNR that there were "significant gaps" in the information it had received regarding the permits. It asked for additional information so that it could better understand the validity of the permits. The state has asked Usibelli for more information.
Sedwick asked lawyer Katherine Strong if he rightly understood that plaintiffs were asking the federal court to enforce state law, and she said yes.
The company said earlier this month that it would work with the state to get the permits properly renewed as soon as possible.
Work at the mine has stopped until the permitting problem can be settled.
Tim Leach with Friends of the Mat-Su said he knows enough about Usibelli's plans to know the mine is a bad idea for his small neighborhood, where he said homes are going up for sale and people are threatening to move out. The home he built seven years ago is adjacent to land Usibelli leases, he said.
The area northeast of Palmer used to be a hotbed for coal mining but that was largely over by the late 1960s. Leach said it has changed a lot since then. People have moved in and are opening small businesses and raising families, he said. They don't want mining renewed because of concerns about coal dust, noise, pollution and the impact on property values.
"We built our cabin trying to make our dream come true," he said. "That type of Alaska dream is what we are pursuing still."
Sedwick said he expected to issue a prompt response.
By MARY PEMBERTON