PALMER — The Mat-Su Borough Assembly has given its thumbs up to possible coal development near Skwentna.

The development in question is a 13,175-acre area the state Department of Natural Resources is considering leasing 18 miles southwest of Skwentna. The department has said it is considering the leases after Alaska Energy Corp., which appears to be owned by CanAm Coal Corp. of Calgary, requested the state make some land there available.

“The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly supports the efforts of AK DNR to lease the site for coal exploration and mining, and supports the efforts to authorize environmentally responsible coal mining that will benefit borough workers, taxpayers and residents,” reads the resolution sponsored by Mayor Larry DeVilbiss, which passed the assembly by a 6-1 vote Jan. 15.

The current assembly has a history of endorsing coal projects and its members have passed a resolution supporting mining in Sutton, too.

Reasons listed for support in the recent resolution include that the mine could potentially employ hundreds of borough residents and strict permitting requirements of the state would ensure the work is done responsibly.

But while a majority at the assembly table liked the idea of endorsing the lease, the measure did garner opposition.

“While we realize your collective statement is largely symbolic and of no real value,” said Jamey Duhamel, program director for the Castle Mountain Coalition, “the fact that your statement is unnecessary simply makes it worse.”

Assemblyman Warren Keogh, eventually the only vote against endorsing the lease sale, said he thought such a move was premature — DNR hasn’t even decided what it will do — unnecessary — DNR was unlikely to take the borough’s views into account — and based on a lot of speculation.

For instance, he pointed to a statement in the resolution that the mine would be one of the largest taxpayers here.

“We have no extraction fee,” Keogh said. “Any suggestion that this project could be one of the largest taxpayers in the borough seems pie-in-the-sky to me.”

He eventually won a move to change the language about taxes to include a statement about the borough considering a 1 percent tax on coal extracted within its boundaries. Assemblyman Ron Arvin supported that.

“Some might be surprised in my willingness to consider a royalty on an extraction activity,” he said. But, in recent months, “I’ve heard industry almost across the board being receptive to at least a discussion about it and I think we can be proactive.”

He said that he understands how industry has an impact on local roads and schools and other government-provided services.

“I actually believe 1 percent is too much, but I think it’s good that we begin that discussion and it needs to be more than just coal,” he said. “It’s time for industry to realize that local governments have impacts from extraction activity and local government should share in revenue from that activity.”

Keogh defended the 1 percent number.

“If we’re going to have coal in the Valley we should have some way to support the many costs we’re going to have for public safety infrastructure,” he said. “One percent’s a good number.”

(1) comment

All For The Kids
All For The Kids

This is such disappointing news. As humans we seem be constantly chasing our tails, running around cleaning up after messes we make and could easily avoid. This is just another example of putting company profit ahead of public safety.

The trouble with coal mining isn't just the dust and pollution that mining and transporting it creates. There is only one reason to mine and extract coal, and that is to eventually burn it. Study after study after study demonstrates that burning coal is a terrible thing to do to the environment. I know, "bla, bla, bla...the environment." Except we get to live in that environment after we create it.

I own and reside in one home which is next door to two rental homes which I also own and manage. A few years ago someone moved in kitty corner to my residence, and last winter he started burning coal. Although we all have natural gas, he doesn't want to pay Enstar to hook him up. So, he started burning coal because they say it is cheap. The smoke and smell fill the street, coat the lake two streets away and travel a remarkable distance into neighboring areas.

For years we have enjoyed skiing on the lake which is one street away from our house. Now the lake sits coated in a coal fog and we rarely ski it anymore. We go to our friends' lake instead. Many days we try not to run fans or open doors to the outside. This also means no more playing outside for the kiddos. Can you imagine what living here is like now?

Stepping out my door or just walking out to the car burn my eyes and irritates my throat. Though my rental homes sit farther away from the coal burning home than we do, they are all still affected. On more than one week this winter alone, my tenants have asked to break their lease and move out because the smell and thick smoke get so bad. They complain of multiple doctors visits for perpetual sinus infections. The smoke fills our houses. I have spoken with the coal-burning neighbor and his response is that weather inversions which hold all of this smoke down are not his problem. He doesn't mind the smell and doesn't care about the trout and if we do, it is our problem.

The thick smoke which fogs up the lake (where trout spawn) must drop onto the lake an ever-increasing amount of coal particles, which are known to be caustic and poisonous. So the air is poisoned, as is the nearby lake, and we also know that anywhere he dumps his coal ash it will leach into the ground. Studies warn you need to exercise caution when dumping coal ash, but it isn't regulated here, and so the neighbor doesn't worry about this either. This in a neighborhood where everyone has well water.

Somewhere in this debate, someone will counter that we have air quality regulations which should prevent this type of pollution. While that is true, these regulations lack the funding for enforcement, which essentially makes them hollow. I know, because I have attempted to work through this with code compliance and the DEC. So as you encourage more coal development are you going to use the revenue to create new and enforce existing regulations? Will you use the revenue to replace lost property taxes as residents move away from an increasingly polluted and undesirable area? Will you supplement medical costs for those who's lungs and sinuses are affected? My rentals bring money into this borough through property taxes. His house will stay Tyveked forever in an effort not to pay taxes and not to contribute to the community.

It should be important to us to protect our community and make it a nice and desirable place to live. The quality of life we have in our communities and the types of people who share that community with us are going to be greatly affected by your decisions and the information you choose to consider. Air quality is already a huge problem for Fairbanks residents. Why would we encourage that problem here?

Even if all the coal gets 'exported' (which won't happen), is this the legacy we as Mat-Su Borough residents want to adopt? That we are helping to make the world worse place to live?

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