There has been lots said and much ink spilled on both sides of the discussion concerning coal mining at Wishbone Hill. Discussion and debate is good and gets a community involved in those things that affect it directly.
Whether the coal mining district is reopened remains to be seen. It all hinges on whether Usibelli ultimately obtains a production permit.
So what will coal mining produce with particularity to Sutton, Palmer, Wasilla and Port MacKenzie? Following is a list extracted from an impact study produced for the Mat-Su Borough Economic Development Department in 2010 by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) of the University of Alaska Anchorage.
ISER relates that the mines would be in operation at least 16 years, produce about 145 direct, indirect and induced jobs resulting in approximately $7.8 million of annual personal income. Also a mini-boom of business and housing in Sutton may result.
Conversely, additional costs for schools and other area-wide functions for the Mat-Su Borough would be about $318,000 more a year. It is, however, offset by a modest increase to the borough government in additional property tax of about $440,000. That is not much of a gain.
The borough, however, appears to make out much better with wharfage fees at Point MacKenzie — about $818,000 per year. It should also be noted that not all of the wharfage fees go to the borough. ISER states it is likely that since most of the port costs are fixed, the additional port fees would greatly exceed the additional costs to the port to provide the required services.
ISER posits cautiously that port fees would likely provide a significant net fiscal benefit to the borough. The state of Alaska, on the other hand, will be expected to throw some money into the increased school budget of about $870,000, but does reclaim in the neighborhood of $1.25 million in royalties.
This seems to be a pretty fair balance at the onset; however, there is the little matter of transporting the coal to market.
Usibelli plans to move 500,000 metric tons of coal per year throughout the 15-year production run of the mining site. The ISER report states that the plan is to have 12 trucks make three round-trips per day, up to six days per week, between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. These trucks would need to operate 300 to 325 days a year to move that much coal, presumably to make it a paying proposition.
The question then is what size trucks are these going to be? By doing some math we pretty much know that coal is about half the (weight) density of gravel, equaling about 50 pounds per cubic foot. So assuming that the shipper uses a 20-yard side dump or any gravel truck, we know it will run light from normal loads.
Then, 20 yards equaling about 540 cubic feet of coal will be approximately 27,000 pounds, or 14 tons, per 20-yard truck, unless they use larger dump boxes for coal. There would be about 100 trips per day average at 20 yards per truck trip. So, running 12 hours per day equals nine trucks per hour, or a truck every seven minutes (or every 14 minutes for a 24/7 operation).
Then it may follow that the hauling would be 200 truck trips per day May to October, generally on weight restrictions, stockpile the coal and shut down in the winter and double the frequency listed above three to seven minutes per 20-yard truck. This also could double the yardage per truck to 40 yards and be OK on weight and reduce the trips by half.
Remember, they are moving 500,000 metric tons per year. Any way you cut it, that’s a lot of trips.
Conversely, according to the ISER report, it’s three trucks at 36 round trips for 300-plus days a year. Does it pencil out with a 20-yard truck?
Note, it’s the state Department of Natural Resources that permits the mine and doesn’t consider the transportation piece of this enterprise. That’s left to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which hasn’t even weighed in on this matter to date. One would think that one state of Alaska department might consider the whole picture and coordinate with other departments concerning bright line issues.
The route of the transshipment is important as a key factor. Given the limited roads, which way will they go to get to Point MacKenzie, or Seward for that matter?
Well, if trucks come from the mine and beat it up the new Trunk Road extension, then the city of Palmer and downtown miss the bullet. The trucks bypass them and make it to the Parks Highway to Knik-Goose Bay Road. That, no doubt, will relieve Palmer residents.
Houston never gets into the road issues on this. The mayor of Houston and her constituents probably like that.
The fact of the matter is that the trucks have to go through Wasilla and down KGB Road, which, by the way, is a safety corridor.
Usibelli could go into Palmer and stockpile coal at the ABI gravel pits. After all, they have loading conveyers that could put the stuff on the trains to Seward or eventually Port MacKenzie if the rail spur ever gets built. But that might not be good for Palmer residents; after all, they already dodged the bullet on this.
There is no bypass around Wasilla. I know I can’t find it, and I sit on the board trying to design a route that is at least 10 years out. (Yes, we all know in hindsight that it should have been done in the 1990s.)
They could rebuild the rail spur to the mine, but that’s mucho dinero. So, here sits Wasilla and the greater area and not one state agency has addressed the problem.
KGB and the Parks Highway are state roads, and anyone who has driven KGB, and many of us do regularly, do so with great trepidation. Its planned upgrade is a long way off. The borough mayor likes coal, a lot. He has said so. Perhaps he has an answer to this rather knotty problem.
In fact, I like coal. I remember as a kid the coal yards and the trucks that would come to our house and school and run it down the chute to the coal bin. It was a great place to play, but it always made my mom mad on wash day.
We would put the lumps and clinkers in snowballs and throw them at each other. Man they hurt when they hit.
We would go home with shiners, bruises and lumps on our heads. My dad would get mad having to doctor us up. He thought we were just stupid.
But I knew he and his brothers and sisters did the same thing in the ’20s and ’30s growing up. He was glad when we converted to oil heat, so no more shoveling and messing with it in the winter for him.
All kidding aside, if we as a community and state collectively are going forward with this mineral development, we ought to get our heads together and find an acceptable transportation corridor as well as balance the cost-benefit ratios to such an enterprise. After all, it’s the grown up thing to do. The real question is what size trucks is Usibelli really going to use?
Verne Rupright has been mayor of Wasilla since 2008.