By ANDREW WELLNER
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.”