Court Rules that Coal Mine Permits Expire Automatically
Wishbone's 25-Year-Old Permit Expired Under Law
Note: Edited Dec. 22, 2016
On July 7, 2016, the U.S. District Court issued a decision protecting the Matanuska Valley from unpermitted coal mining. The Court rejected the Office of Surface Mining’s (OSM) conclusion that a permit for Usibelli’s Wishbone Hill coal mine was valid. This is the final decision in a lawsuit that Trustees filed last year to protect the Matanuska Valley and its communities from the harmful impacts of coal strip mining.
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 the Wishbone Hill Coal Mine 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, rest 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Mat Valley applauded a preliminary decision by OSM that the decades-old mining permit for Wishbone Hill Coal Mine was no longer valid and the company would have to halt operations unless it obtained a new permit.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 reversal.
In the decision, the Court overturned OSM’s second interpretation and ruled that permits terminate automatically. The Court said, “Congress has directly spoken to the precise question and has provided that a surface coal mining permit terminates by operation of law when mining operations have not commenced within three years unless the agency has affirmatively granted an extension . . . .” This means that no coal mining 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 invalidated 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 decision, 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
Editor’s note: The headline was edited for clarity on Dec. 22, 2016. It was changed from “Court Rules Wishbone Hill Coal Mine Permit Invalid” to the current headline.