Alaska News

Federal court challenge to Usibelli coal mining permits in Mat Su fails

A challenge by environmental opponents of a proposed Usibelli coal mine near Sutton in Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Valley has failed. On Thursday, U.S. District Court John Sedwick dismissed the case brought against Usibelli by a group called Friends of Mat Su. The group has alleged the mine is operating without valid permits.

As occurs in many administrative battles in the Last Frontier, the controversy lies at the intersection of the state's sometimes-awkward relationship with the federal government. In the case at hand, that relationship has worked against mine opponents.

Alaska coal mines are regulated and permitted under the Alaska Surface Coal Mining Control and Reclamation Act, a state-empowered version of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Because of that, Alaska gets to be the boss.

Friends of Mat-Su filed a lawsuit in federal court, hoping to prevail on a provision of the law that allows citizens to bring mine operators to court when those operators violate their permits.

But because Alaska has primacy over its coal mining industry, Sedwick ruled the suit should have been filed in state court instead. Sedwick also found that the target should perhaps be the state of Alaska, which granted the permits, instead of Usibelli, which holds the permits. That's because the issue pertains to the validity of the permits -- not whether Usibelli is adhering to their terms. Finally, Sedwick found that the state, which was not named in the suit, was a required party to the case.

"Regardless of whether the issue is considered a jurisdictional one or a failure to state a claim, this court concludes that plaintiffs cannot move forward with their complaint in federal court," Sedwick wrote in a Sept. 13 order dismissing the case.

Friends of Mat Su believes that the coal mining permits died in 1996 and were never properly re-issued.

An investigation into the validity of the permits remains underway at the Office of Surface Mining, a federal regulatory agency. While the state of Alaska oversees the permitting process, it must still comply with federal law and guidelines.

"Citizens hope that the Office of Surface Mining will hold Usibelli accountable to the public and the surrounding community," said Tim Leach, conversation director for Friends of Mat Su in a prepared statement sent issued on Friday.

Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.