SUTTON — A coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit in federal court hoping to void one of the main permits Usibelli Coal Mine will need to bring coal mining back to Mat-Su.
“The permit does not allow existing community members to have a voice in how a mining operation will be managed in their own back yards,” said Shawna Whaley, a Chickaloon resident and board member for Castle Mountain Coalition, one of the groups suing the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.
The permit in question is one of many Usibelli needs, it’s the permit to mine coal. It was first issued in 1991 to Idemitsu Inc., a Japanese firm, but eventually made its way to Usibelli. The permit was renewed in 1994, but no mining activity commenced until Usibelli returned to the area in 2010.
The terms of the permit say that it is invalid if mining doesn’t start within two years after it’s issued. As such, the groups contend the permit became void in 1996.
Conversely, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources argues that by not actively stepping in and declaring the permit invalid, the department tacitly renewed it. The Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement reviewed that decision and, though it faulted DNR and chastised the department for its lax record keeping, allowed the permit to stand.
That office, generally referred to in coal discussions as OSMRE, had nothing to add to the conversation over the latest lawsuit — filed March 18 — when reached Friday.
“We don’t comment on an ongoing or a potential lawsuit,” said Chris Holmes, a spokesman for OSMRE.
Also joining the lawsuit are Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Center for the Environment, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and the Sierra Club.
The initial complaint notes that federal agency appeared to say the permits were invalid in a letter it sent to DNR, but later reversed that decision. The letter in question — dated Dec. 14, 2011 — is known as a “10-day Notice” and demanded an explanation from DNR about the permit.
After nearly three years of inaction, OSMRE said in November 2014 that it would allow the permits stand, but said the state will need to file an action plan for how it will make sure such lapse do not happen in the future.
As for Usibelli, the company said its operations at Wishbone Hill are in limbo whie they navigate the permitting processes.
“As a company overall, we certainly remain committed to the further development of Wishbone Hill. But once we finally get the permit, we will be able to take a fresh look at the feasibility study because these numbers are four years old,” said Lorali Simon, Usibelli’s vice president for external affairs.
Whaley said she knows that if the permit is tossed, Usibelli could file for a new one. But, she said, starting the process over would allow neighbors to voice concerns..
“We have every right to weigh in on the detriment of our neighborhoods, and we deserve as much,” Whaley said.
Vicki Clark, with Trustees for Alaska, whose lawyers are representing the groups that filed the lawsuit against OSMRE, agreed that new input is needed.
“Things have changed tremendously. There’s a lot of people living there, and they do want to have that permitting process started from the beginning so that the information can be analyzed from the very beginning to take into account all of the issues that they’re going to face,” Clark said.
She said people would like to see socioeconomic concerns, like truck traffic through the neighborhood, addressed.
“We’ve been over to DNR pretty regularly to see what’s in the files, and there hasn’t been any information like that,” she said. “The thing about a mining permit or an exploration permit is that they are looking more holistically at the project. So there’s going to be a lot more information available.”
Regarding the lawsuit, Simon said the issue has been decided again and again.
“These groups simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of Alaska’s permitting process,” Simon said. “What part of ‘no’ don’t they understand?”
Whaley responded to that point directly.
“We understand ‘no’. But we won’t accept ‘no’ from an industry that does not live up to its own standards,” she said. “We will not accept ‘no’ as in ‘no one will take responsibly for a poorly managed project’… And, especially we won’t accept anyone saying ‘no’ to valuing the concerns of a growing community.”