The Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) recent approval of Usibelli's Air Quality permit for the Wishbone Hill coal strip mine was a devastating blow to those of us in the Valley working to protect our community from harmful coal mining. With this permit, Usibelli is dangerously close to beginning coal strip mining at Wishbone Hill, just two miles from hundreds of homes, two schools, and several businesses. Despite this setback, hundreds of Valley residents remain committed to stopping this terrible project.
Many Valley residents know we must act now before it is too late. This is why 500 of us submitted comments to the DEC, voicing our opposition to Usibelli's air quality permit approval. Unfortunately, the DEC failed to address our concerns, even though we are the ones who will live with the consequences of polluted air.
The department's permit approval is merely another example of bureaucratic box-checking. Usibelli's permit was rejected several times before due to inadequacies, such as lacking data from the actual coal mining area. However, Usibelli was allowed to fill in the gaps with data from Eagle River, an area lacking those Matanuska winds that are of most concern. Box checked. Permit approved.
In the big picture, it doesn't actually matter if all forms are filed correctly. We clearly cannot and should not rely on a government bureaucracy or a profit-driven corporation to protect our health. In taking responsibility for our future, the real question we must consider as a community is: can an open pit coal mine exist in a high-wind area without blanketing people downwind in coal dust, and thereby threatening the health of our families? Based on the fate of other coal mining regions, the answer is no. Coal mining does not coexist with healthy communities.
Coal dust contains known toxins including arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals. Studies from the University of Washington have linked living near coal strip mines to increased respiratory, cardiovascular, and kidney problems as well as higher rates of several cancers. Children are especially vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution and can suffer decreased lung function that can lead to life-long health issues.
Operating a coal crusher that grinds through five tons of coal every day upwind of the communities of Palmer and Wasilla is a dirty and dangerous combination that never should have been approved by the DEC. Especially when one considers that the Mat-Su Valley has already seen 11 air quality advisory days in 2014 caused by windy, dry conditions. This is one more in a long line of examples of the state of Alaska drowning out the voice of the people it serves.
Although we won't have absolute evidence that coal dust will ruin our air quality until the damage is done, we cannot afford to take that risk.
As a cancer survivor, and more importantly, as a mother of a young child, I will not raise my daughter where the air we breathe threatens our lives. My husband, Steve, and I returned to Palmer last summer after living in Appalachia, or "coal country," for three years. We returned because we want our daughter to have a promising future in a community where people take care of one another. We want her to have clean air and water, to hunt, fish and experience the wilderness that is already gone in the Lower 48. Without careful consideration, the DEC is blindly giving it all away.
A strong community is a healthy community. United, we have the power to protect our community from harmful industries. Unfortunately, 500 Valley residents speaking up was not enough to convince the DEC to protect our health. Please help strengthen our voice by joining the Mat Valley Coalition today, and help shape a brighter future for our wonderful community. Together we can ensure the Mat-Su remains a wonderful place to live, work, play and raise a family.
Laurel Carlsen is a mother, nursing student and cancer survivor who lives in Palmer.
By LAUREL CARLSEN
Alaska Dispatch Publishing