|Looking toward Wishbone Hill from my house|
Groups seek to protect Mat-Su families from dangerous coal mine
Palmer, AK – As the summer work season approaches, local groups have taken action to hold Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. responsible for mining without a valid permit at Wishbone Hill. The Wishbone Hill project would be Alaska’s first coal strip mine to operate in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Communities throughout the Mat-Su are concerned about public safety, noise and light pollution, toxic coal dust, and impacts to property values. Today’s lawsuit follows unsuccessful attempts by the groups to compel state and federal agencies to enforce the prohibition against unpermitted mining.
“The fact that is has taken so long for the agencies to address our concerns lead us to believe that the complaint has merit,” said Kirby Spangler, President of the Castle Mountain Coalition. “Thousands of residents have voiced valid concerns and we don’t want to continue waiting on regulators as another construction season approaches.”
According to state and federal law, mining permits expire automatically if the permit holder fails to begin mining within three years, or fails to secure an extension of that deadline. A company first acquired permits for mining at Wishbone Hill in 1991. Those permits expired in 1996 when the company had not begun mining and had not secured an extension. But since June 2010, Usibelli has started operating at Wishbone Hill: constructing the haul road, clearing vegetation and logging, and beginning to stockpile topsoil. In the more than 20 years that have passed since the permits were first issued, the region surrounding the mine has changed drastically, becoming a residential community. In fact, the access road joins the Glenn Highway directly across from a local elementary school.
“My family has firsthand experience dealing with the coal industry,” said Bonnie Zirkle, local resident, hunting guide and business owner. “This coal project is already impacting the property values in our community. Coal is dirty and dangerous to the water, air and health of our community.”
“If Usibelli Coal Company wishes to be a responsible company and good neighbor they must follow the rules, including the most basic- obtaining a valid permit to operate,” Said Jeremiah Millen, Executive Director of Friends of Mat-Su. “We believe the scale and location of what is being proposed at Wishbone Hill will result in negative impacts to local residents, property values, fish and wild life habitat and overall quality of life throughout the valley. We look forward to working with the agencies and the company when and if they obtain valid permit.”
[disclaimer: I am secretary of the board of directors for Friends of Mat-Su, one of the community groups litigating this issue]