Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.

A Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. sign with permitting numbers stands at the entrance access point to the Wishbone Hill area near Sutton.

PALMER — The Alaska Department of Natural Resources ruled this week in favor of the Usibelli Coal Mining company’s Wishbone Hill mining operation near Sutton.

Specifically, DNR ruled permits issued for the Wishbone Hill mining facility did not terminate automatically at the end of a three-year period, despite no mining at the site between the 1991 permit issuance and Usibelli’s return to the area in 2010.

Instead of filing for new licenses in 2011, the company filed to renew the previous permits, which opponents argue had expired. That’s because statutes don’t specifically mandate an expiration of a mining permit past the three-year mark, according to the DNR’s ruling.

Essentially, the applicable statutes say “a permit terminates” after three years. Environmental groups, like the Castle Mountain Coalition, argue that because federal statutes read “a permit terminates automatically,” the interpretation of the state regulation should match, according to the ruling.

State officials disagree.

“Requestors read this Alaska statute differently than its language supports, especially when taken in context,” hearing officer Terry Thurbon wrote in March.

DNR Commissioner Mark Myers affirmed Thurbon’s decision Monday.

“Although the Alaska Statutes must be consistent with federal law, they need not be identical to it,” Myers wrote. “The federal program will pre-empt a state’s program if the state’s program ‘interfere[s] with the achievement of the purposes and requirements of the federal program.’”

The company believes its right to mine the Wishbone Hill site in Chickaloon is secure, said company spokeswoman Lorali Simon. The company is working to determine whether they’ll go ahead and install water-monitoring wells at the site of Wishbone Hill as early as this summer.

“We have not made a decision if we’re going to do the installation this summer, just considering it,” she said. “If we were going to do something this summer, that would be the next step.”

Simon shrugged off a continuing lawsuit, which targets the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and federally issued permits.

“Usibelli is very optimistic that the court at this level will rule once again in favor of the validity of our permits,” she said.

Opponents, like Kirby Spangler, a board member for the Castle Mountain Coalition, which is a collection of local, state and national environmental groups that launched the lawsuit, said while the permit decision runs contrary to the coalition’s filing, the anti-coal groups may have already won.

“I think we feel like that was a big victory, in that we delayed them by four years now, when we first called that permit into question,” he said. “In the meantime, the coal market has changed dramatically, and they’re not making any moves to develop the mine over there. Everybody seems to be in a holding pattern.”

The price of coal in late 2011, when mining operations became an issue, was near $80 per short ton. That price was $41.13 as of Tuesday, according to InfoMine.com, a mining investment website.

“When we started opposing this thing in 2010, everybody in the Valley told us we were crazy, there was nothing we could do to stop it, they’ve got all their permits,” he said. “We delayed them by calling that permit into question for three years, and I consider that to be a huge success on our part.”

Attorneys for the coalition said they have until July 22 to appeal the decision.

Contact Brian O’Connor at 352-2269, brian.oconnor@frontiersman.com, or on Twitter @reporterbriano.

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