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.

(14) comments


Here in my hot little hand is a similar case: how DOT does a traffic analysis, then designs/upgrades our Hwy. Then permit use for non-stop, 55 mph, double tandem trucks from MSB's new gravel pit on Caudhill. It opened the same day the last cone was removed from S Old Glenn F 2007. And it started cracking in 2010, at perfectly spaced intervals.
Any tax payers been killed yet for not having 'noticed' the gravel trucks on the 'we paid for it' urban feeder road? How;s that urban bridges holding up? Starts to get ugly when you notice how the plan is always for what was and not what it shall be.

Marty Van Diest
Marty Van Diest

It's already been mentioned 2-3 times by other comments but still ignored. The Mayor's trucking calculations are wrong. There are going to be 36 trips a day by trucks hauling doubles at night. Thats less than one every 15 minutes at night.

Have you noticed how many doubles run through Wasilla at night already? These will be running right along with them except when they turn down the KGB road. Still only one every 15 minutes and at night.


MEA just announced they've been approved for another rate increase. If we had coal power our electricity rates could be half what they are now. I could use that extra $100 a month to pay for the higher gasoline cost! The railroad already goes to Palmer, and a spur is being surveyed from Pt. McKenzie. Once permitting and surveying is completed, it will be built in no time at all, employing many Alaskans in its construction. The lower 48 went through steps to become the modern nation it is today; first extracting resources and building infrastructure, then shutting the industries down in the name of conservation. We are attempting as a state to jump straight from an undeveloped territory to a modern, enlightened, preservationist society without any of the intermediate development that is needed to support that society.


bluecollar, yes. MtMike, I think you'd find some reason to complain about a sunny day.


Good article. Obviously we need a new rail spur from Palmer utilizing the old existing rail bed along the Matanuska River going to Moose Creek where there's room for a loading terminal. The old rail bed has a few gravel slides across it that can be removed. Coal can be short-hauled by truck from Wishbone and Chickaloon mines to Moose Creek and then railed to the Port.

Costs? That will have to be cooperatively shared by the State, Usibelli, Riversdale, ARR and MSB Port revenues. Might as well apply for the Fed money too and re-direct some of it toward local development before the national economy implodes. And it will. The producers will be the only ones building this country back from disaster.

'train's a coming, river's running...'


Heh, Heh, Heh!

Coal mining equals one more corrupt "boondoggle" for Alaska to grope through.

Alaska a state which was known for its "tourism" and natural beauty, is simply well on its way to becoming a giant "mine" for corporate America.

Once all the resources are gone from Alaska (like the salmon now "disappearing") or until Americans kill themselves from greed and stupidity, whichever comes first the greed and stupidity will continue.

Tourism was not enough for Alaska!


Interesting trucking calculations. Set of doubles hauling 50 tons a trip, figures out to what ISER states: 12 trucks three rounds a day, working 8:00pm to 6:00am, I would venture to say most people WON'T EVEN NOTICE IT.
All the hand wringing amazes me.


Mayor Rupright,

Good point about transportation.

I would prefer to see the coal moved by rail to Point MacKenzie. A rail line and Point MacKenzie would be mutually beneficial for decades to come.

Gregory Gusse
Gregory Gusse

Thank you Mayor. First the ISER document is deeply deeply flawed. NONE of the numbers in it add up or are properly cited. It appears to be written as a PR piece not as a scientific document. Again...nothing can be fact checked in that document.

That aside you mention the Port but fail to mention the 30 year contract Mr. Arvin made with the borough that in essence gave him and now his assigns total control of the port and all fees, he or his assigns do own the loading equipment. It is true that the contract was renegotiated and the borough will get a tiny tiny percentage of the profits generated (not the gross). Of course the borough had to return about half the money Mr, Arvin paid for the port.

You also don't mention the fact that coal companies get a royalty/tax abatement of 3.5 years...or the projected taxes are based on 20 million in improvements over the life of the mine but you can look to Healy and see coal mines do not include high rise luxury hotels...what 20 million?

Frankly even if Usibelli does provide the 30 jobs they talk about or even 100 jobs, this mine will cost the citizens of the borough and the State! It will be fought on those Constitutional grounds if DNR does give a permit.

It is great to see you are looking at this critically too bad the reality is so hidden.


@ Not Buying

NOTICE, in my "rants", the word BALANCE and PROPER PLANNING, come into play more than once.

I am not "anti-growth".

I am against what is going on NOW in Mat Su Borough and Alaska, the force feeding of the "boondoggles" that have happened. If you did not "catch It" the FTA shut down the remaining funding for the "Port" until a "proper plan" is presented.

The improper budgeting, lack of depth in thinking, the growth through "if you build it ehy will come", the improper PLANNING and the RESULTS on the EXISTING Alaska Tax Payers are what have MY ATTENTION.

Crooks in "government", apparently in the "pockets" of developers, at the "expense" (in many ways, including existing services) of existing tax payers in Mat Su Borough, have my attention!

Not Buying
Not Buying

Well, MTMIKE, it appears that you have not entirely shunned modern progress since you somehow published your words on this web blog. You must have purchased some electronic devices, used some of MEA's power, and supported some undesirable infrastructure that was put together with some equipment that required oil and maybe even some coal power. Your rant reminds me why I can't stand the Greenpeace environmental wackos who fly up here on gas guzzling jet aircraft to protest oil drilling. I might respect their idiotic protests if they would just walk all the way up here and not use or ever purchase anything that depends on petroleum products..

For safety and efficiency, rail is the proven best way to move coal, or for that matter any product over a long distance. I think most people would choose rail for this project over trucks any day. You could prove this by running those trucks for just one day and see how the commuters of the valley like sharing the roads with the increased truck traffic. People up on Palmer Fishhook have been sharing the road with nonstop gravel hauling for the new Hatcher pass ski resort road. Ask some of them how they like following a heavy gravel rig up the hill at about 4 mile Fishhook.

Mr. Mayor, thanks for starting the discussion.


Devilbiss is always short-sighted. Thank you Vern for looking beyond and running the numbers. Only one thing, you may want to triple your numbers because Usibelli is not the only coal company planning this scheme....add in the two foreign companies who plan on running trucks down the same route from Sutton and Chickaloon mines as well. 3 coal mines north of Palmer all trucking coal to the Port through Wasilla.....many many many more trucks.


The "numbers" being used to justify the "future" with coal, a port, a bridge, a dam, a ski hill, a prison" are so far off, it is a insult to intelligence!

We currently live in a world, that is "upside down" fiscally. Try to remember, the US is 16 Trillion in debt and growing! Europe is as bad, if not worse off as the US.

We in the US are no longer #1!

Simply look back at the "growth" within the past decade in Mat Su Borough, and then factor in, more road congestion, more crime, a lack of proper local government and a lack of planning to handle the on going growth, rising utility costs (electric, water, disposal, fuel), less purchasing power for the masses, "pay" not keeping up with "inflation" and these "numbers being used" to justify coal mining are so skewered, the developers get rich and the masses pay, the numbers are ridiculous, an insult!

Start with, precdicting who will be President in 2013. Who gets elected President, effects all.

Then predict, what will happen to the Euro, what will happen to the cost of food production world wide, the overfished fisheries, the US States whose "production" are tied tightly to Europe, and try to justify the idea that Mat Su Borough can continue to function as they have in the past.

Not gonna happen. Want more examples,

Wasilla the "incorporated city", is already mumbling about increasing the "city sales tax", which effects all who shop in Wasilla.

Who will pay for sewer expansion in Wasilla, Palmer, Houston, Talkeetna, with future growth? Electric, Water, Garbage Disposal, snow removal, road congestion, more government?

Increasing future sales tax in Wasilla, will further lower the purchasing power of the "worker", those on fixed income, those who live here in Alaska year round.

MEA is increasing their "costs" to the masses in October. More growth does not equate to lower costs! MEA is another example.

Get a clue - there is a balance between growth and what the existing tax payers can sustain.

Any business knows, increasing their gross, does not automatically mean their net goes up.

If one increases "costs" when increasing gross, they can actually lose money, or go broke by changing a successful operation!

Alaska is the Last Frontier, and soon to turn into Los Anchorage, if the "developers" have their way, at the expense of the masses who currently live, work and pay taxes here now.

More is not always better! There is a balance!


The mayor could have saved a lot of midnight oil, wear and tear on his calculator and hand wringing about truck traffic by calling Usibelli or reading Usibelli's Wishbone Hill permit application regarding coal transport. If he had he would learn that Usibelli plans to haul 500,000 tons per year using 45-50 tons per load and 36 round trips per day. This is not the 14 tons per load and 200 trips per day our elected kitchen table logistics expert claims.

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