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Alaska pushes back on federal involvement in mine

Posted: August 4, 2012 - 11:06pm

JUNEAU — The state is defending the validity of permits for a south-central Alaska coal mine and pushing back against a federal agency’s involvement in the matter.

In a letter to the federal Office of Surface Mining dated Thursday, Brent Goodrum, director of Alaska’s Division of Mining, Land and Water, said the federal agency is seeking to invalidate permits for the Wishbone Hill coal mine near Sutton years after they were approved by the state and after operations had begun — all with OSM’s knowledge. He called this “troubling.”

“The result is to create uncertainty for any coal permit in Alaska and other states due to providing perpetual opportunity to appeal and overturn state permitting decisions,” he wrote. “This puts companies, workers and the public in the difficult position of never knowing that a decision on a coal mining permit is truly final.”

Goodrum was responding to the federal mining office’s request for additional information on the state’s permitting decisions in regard to the project.

Kenneth Walker, manager of the Denver Field Division for OSM, last month told the state Department of Natural Resources that information it had received regarding permitting for the mine has “significant gaps.” He asked the department, under which Goodrum’s division falls, to review its permit file and to let the office know if additional information is available.

OSM was responding to citizen complaints and concerns about the project. Critics, who argue that permits expired in the 1990s, have raised concerns about water quality and other potential impacts in the area.

OSM’s preliminary finding, based on information it had received from the state to that point, was that DNR’s assertions that the permits are valid were “not supported by the facts or applicable law.”

Goodrum, in his letter, said the Wishbone Hill permits have been renewed three times in the last two decades, and that OSM has been “fully informed” of the state’s decisions, inspected the site and issued “favorable reports” related to the mine and the regulatory oversight of it.

He said the state maintains the permits are valid. And in an interview Friday, he said the state generally has been satisfied with the work that has been done by Usibelli Coal Mine Inc., the company behind the project.

But the state has requested additional information from Usibelli as part of its latest renewal request. In a letter to the company dated Thursday, Goodrum said DNR heard public concerns that baseline data required to maintain permits is outdated, and DNR determined that certain information in fact needed to be updated for the operation and reclamation plan.

No firm timeline was given for Usibelli to respond, though Goodrum said it could take 180 days. He said no additional development work is authorized under the permits until DNR has received, reviewed and approved all requested information from the company.

Lorali Simon, vice president of external affairs for Usibelli, said the company has received the letter and will do what it can to work with the state to get the permits renewed as soon as possible.

Usibelli, on its website, says the Wishbone Hill deposit has about 14 million tons of identified reserves. The company says the deposit, while relatively small, is particularly valuable because it is the only bituminous coal deposit on the road system in Alaska.

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