Court Reaffirms Coal Mining Win for Matanuska Valley Residents

Decision Protects Community from Dirty Coal at Wishbone Hill

Oct 27, 2016
Lisa Oakley

A prior decision that ensures coal mining cannot be conducted under decades-old, stale permits was reaffirmed by the US District Court on October 26, 2016. The court’s order was a denial of Usibelli’s motion to alter the court’s earlier ruling. In July, the court rejected the Office of Surface Mining’s (OSM) conclusion that a coal mining permit could be renewed for years, despite no mining ever being done on the site and despite significant changes to the surrounding environment and communities.

Wishbone Hill. Photo courtesy of (c) Fredrik Norrsell.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) requires a company to start mining within three years or the permit expires—unless an extension is granted. When the original mining permit for Wishbone Hill was issued in the early 1990s, the area was a completely different place. Fewer people lived near the mine. Now, several residential neighborhoods, including approximately 900 homes, are within one mile. Many of these people moved to the Matanuska Valley to live in a quiet, rural environment. Having an industrial coal mine as a neighbor would change all that.

Though its permit was issued in 1991, Usibelli did not start mining until 2010.

OSM is the federal agency specifically charged with the oversight of state coal mining operations. It is responsible for ensuring state programs comply with the law. To stop the unpermitted coal mining that began in 2010, local groups asked OSM to step in. In the summer of 2012, residents in the Mat Valley applauded a preliminary decision by OSM that the decades-old mining permit for Wishbone Hill was no longer valid and the company would have to halt operations unless it obtained a new permit. But over two years later, in a decision that shocked and disappointed local residents, OSM reversed itself and determined that the permit was still valid after so many years. This lawsuit challenged OSM’s decision.

In July 2016, the court overturned OSM’s second interpretation, ruling that permits terminate automatically. But Usibelli asked the court to reconsider its ruling, arguing that the court was incorrect. The court denied Usibelli’s request and reaffirmed its earlier decision: permits terminate automatically and state law must be consistent with federal law. This means that no coal mining at Wishbone Hill can happen until a new permit, with a new public process, takes place.

“This decision protects the surrounding community and environment from unpermitted coal mining,” said Katie Strong, Staff Attorney at Trustees for Alaska. “The Wishbone Hill permits were drafted decades ago. Since then, the community has spent millions on environmental restoration and many people now live nearby. As a result of this case, if there’s going to be coal mining at Wishbone Hill, there will be a new process that fully protects the surrounding community.”

CLIENTS: Castle Mountain Coalition, Alaska Center for the Environment, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Cook Inletkeeper, and the Sierra Club

ATTORNEYS: Katie Strong, Brook Brisson, Valerie Brown

Press Statement

Court Decision 10-26-2016

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