Wishbone Hill rises above the small communities of Sutton and Buffalo-Soapstone in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley. These communities attract residents and recreationists with abundant fish and wildlife, clean air and water, and a peaceful, rural lifestyle. While Europeans originally settled the Matanuska Valley to develop coal mines, this historic industry died out in the early 1960s and ceased completely in the 1980s. For decades, significant efforts have been made to restore these areas and many families moved here to establish homes and families.
Since all coal mining ceased, people have enjoyed using the Wishbone Hill area for outdoor recreational activities, including fishing, hiking, and cross-country skiing. Because of these opportunities and the draw of a rural lifestyle, the Matanuska Valley is currently one of the fastest growing parts of the state.
That started to change in 2010 when coal mining companies moved back into the area. Three potential mining operations threaten the neighborhoods and quiet way of life of the upper Matanuska Valley.
Furthest up-valley, Riversdale Alaska LLC has been exploring for coal in and around the small community of Chickaloon. Riversdale conducted most of their exploration activities in the summers of 2012 and 2013. Since then, activities have largely ceased, although Riversdale still holds valid leases for the area and could resume activities.
Closer to the town of Sutton is the historic Jonesville Mine. Ranger Alaska LLC holds valid permits to reopen the mine and do exploration work, but has not conducted any activities in years. The mining at Jonesville would be largely focused on re-mining the tailings piles from previous operations and recovering coal that was not removed during the initial operations.
And, closest to Palmer and Sutton and right next door to the Buffalo-Soapstone communities is Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc.’s Wishbone Hill Mine. The Wishbone Hill Mine permits were originally issued by the State of Alaska in 1991, but no mining-related activities took place at the site until 2010. In 2010, Usibelli started to build a haul road and clear trees to prepare for mining. Because of uncertainties with its permits highlighted by legal challenges brought by Trustees for Alaska, those activities have stopped for now. But the company is still attempting to secure other necessary permits and move forward with mining activities.
The Wishbone Hill Mine would be within a mile of approximately 900 people’s homes. 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. Usibelli’s plans for Wishbone Hill involve the use of explosives to break up the rock. Along with industrial equipment and wash plant operations, the noise from operations will be virtually nonstop. Also, many of these residences and the town of Palmer are downwind from the proposed mine. Coal dust threatens peoples’ health, especially for small children and the elderly. The mine will divert water from salmon-bearing streams, potentially contaminate drinking wells, and has already caused people to move away.
Trustees for Alaska works with local community members and organizations to keep what remains of the Matanuska Valley’s coal in the ground and to maintain the peaceful way of life so many people have sought in this region.