Alaska News

Usibelli wants to start work on coal mine near Sutton

WASILLA -- Usibelli Coal Mine is gearing up for work this summer north of Palmer at its Wishbone Hill lease, but residents in the Buffalo Mine Road area, near the leased land, aren't sure they want a coal mine for a neighbor.

Usibelli has held the Wishbone lease since the early 1990s. The lease extends from Moose Creek to the Eska Creek area north of Sutton. The company plans to build an access road off the Glenn Highway and drill seven or eight exploratory drill holes this summer, said Steve Denton, Usibelli vice president of business, on Tuesday.

If the test holes show promise, Denton said, the company could begin mining in 2012. Whether that happens depends on a lot of factors, he said, including where the roller-coaster coal market is at that point.

The company has a few hoops to jump through before it can begin exploration work this summer, Denton said. It needs to secure a right-of-way lease across Mat-Su Borough land to access the mine lease and must get final state permission to modify its reclamation bond to include the new road. The company might also need an air quality permit from the state.

Usibelli officials have been meeting with area residents to brief them on the company's plans. So far the reaction from would-be neighbors has been concern.

According to the state, 768 people live in the Buffalo Soapstone community, which would be nearest the mining operations.

Rob Wright, a Buffalo Mine Road resident who attended a Sutton Community Council meeting last week to hear Usibelli's presentation, said he would prefer the company look elsewhere for coal.

"With all the coal in Alaska, why can't they go elsewhere? They are literally in our backyard," he said.

Wright mentioned concerns about contaminated runoff into Moose Creek, fears their air would be clogged with coal dust and dirt, and worries that noise from the mining, including blasting, would disrupt the quiet neighborhood.

Buffalo Mine Road parallels Moose Creek as it flows down the canyon. Denton said the western end of the company's lease, near Moose Creek, is the most potentially lucrative because the coal is near the surface.

The land Usibelli has leased was mined between 1916 and 1968, said Rick Fredericksen, state Department of Natural Resources mining chief. Past mining has happened on the eastern side of the lease, toward Eska Creek. With access, Denton said, the west end looks promising.

"There is some potential on the Eska side," Denton said, "but it's nowhere near as favorable as the west end. That's clearly the bright spot."

Denton estimated a little more than a half million tons of coal might be available in that portion of the lease.

If a mine starts up, trucks would haul the coal down the access road the company plans to build this summer. Denton estimated a maximum of 100 trucks per day, though he said he didn't think the mine "would ever be that big."

Wright and other community residents want the state to review the company's mining plan, which he said was crafted in the 1980s.

Very few residents lived in the area at that time, Wright said. Now people live not far from where Usibelli could one day be blasting.

Russell Kirkham, manager of the Department of Natural Resources' coal program, said Usibelli's permit will be reviewed in 2011. Community concerns regarding blasting, noise and other factors will be reviewed in public meetings held then, he said.

Usibelli officials plan to attend an upcoming Sutton Community Council meeting to provide more information about their proposed work, but Community Council board member George Rauscher said a date has not yet been set.

Usibelli is based in Healy, where it operates the state's only coal mine. The Wishbone Hill coal is of a better quality than Usibelli's Healy coal, Fredericksen said.