Trustees for Alaska filed a lawsuit this week against the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) on behalf of several community groups, including the Castle Mountain Coalition. The lawsuit challenges OSM’s recent decision to allow Usibelli Coal Mines to operate under an expired permit at the proposed Wishbone Hill strip mine in the Matanuska Valley.
When the original mining permit was issued in the early 1990s, the area was a completely different place. Fewer people lived near the mine, but now several residential neighborhoods rest within one mile of it. Overall the population of the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough has more than doubled. Despite all that growth and all those new residents, OSM decided the expired permit was still valid without further public comment or consideration.
“Building a coal strip mine adjacent to homes where children play every day is a dangerous proposition,” said Shawna Whaley, a mother and Castle Mountain Coalition board member who lives in Chickaloon. “A new permit application would give residents a chance to weigh in on how the mine would be run, which is especially important given the population growth in the area.”
COAL MINING LAWSUIT TO ENFORCE PERMIT RULES
Under both federal and state coal mining laws, operations must begin within three years or the permit ends. Nevertheless, the permittee idly sat on it for nearly twenty years before work began on building a road and clearing the area in 2010. “The law is clear, if a company doesn’t start mining operations within three years, the permit expires,” said Vicki Clark, Executive Director of Trustees for Alaska, “This lawsuit ensures the law is followed to protect people from the harmful impacts of coal mining.”
The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is a 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 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in the Mat Valley applauded a preliminary decision by OSM that the decades-old mining permit for Wishbone Hill was no longer valid and the company would have to halt operations unless it obtained a new permit.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 its decision and determined that the permit was still valid after so many years. The lawsuit challenges OSM’s reversal.
“This lawsuit is necessary to protect the health of our families and the high quality of life in the Mat-Su,” said Whaley. “By allowing Usibelli to operate the Wishbone Hill Coal Strip Mine with an expired permit, OSM violated the law and endangers the health and wellbeing of Mat-Su families.”
We believe local residents deserve the opportunity to fully assess how a giant coal strip mine adjacent to residential neighborhoods will change their community.