A coal mining permit issued 21 years ago—but not used until recently—is no longer valid, a federal agency has ruled. Tribal leaders cheered the decision because it prevents construction of a coal mine that could harm their communities and the lands they hold sacred.
The decision by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) won’t be final for another 10 days, as the Alaska Department of Natural Resources conducts further file review, but it is unlikely that new facts will surface to change OSM’s conclusions.
The permit is held by Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. for the Wishbone Hill Coal Mine, a proposed strip mine located on traditional Tribal land of the Chickaloon Native Village, near Anchorage, Alaska. The company began to develop the mine in 2010, but has recently ceased again.
Since the permit expired nearly 16 years ago, the Alaska DNR has “erroneously transferred and renewed invalid permits,” according to the OSM. The permit is invalid because Usibelli failed to commence operations within three years after the permit was issued, as required by state and federal law, and has not obtained valid extensions since 1996.
“It’s shameful that DNR refused to enforce their own permit requirements,” said Penny Westing, Secretary of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, the Tribal government for federally-recognized Chickaloon Native Village. “Usibelli is trying to start up a toxic coal strip mine on lands that are sacred to us, using a permit that was issued more than 20 years ago. The permit is badly outdated. It is time to start a new permitting process, using current information and involving the public.”
“We applaud the Office of Surface Mining and urge the agency to take appropriate enforcement action as soon as possible,” added Lisa Wade, Tribal citizen and Health and Social Services Director for Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. “This mine threatens the health of our children, our salmon, our water and air quality, our traditions, and our way of life.”
OSM’s notice followed requests by Chickaloon Native Village and conservation groups for the federal agency to take action. The requests noted that DNR has failed to enforce state and federal law by allowing Usibelli to conduct operations with an expired permit.
“The coal strip mine proposal includes daily blasting, many acres of toxic slurry ponds and other toxic waste, plus the destruction of forests that support our fish and wildlife and where we have sacred ceremonies and traditional religious practices,” said Shawna Larson, Councilmember of Chickaloon Village Traditional Council.
“The project would have up to two hundred double-trailered trucks per day spewing toxic cancer-causing coal dust over our Tribe's traditional hunting and gathering area and the communities along the transportation route,” said Kari Shaginoff, Language Program Manager for Ya Ne Dah Ah School for Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. She added that “the area around the mine site is where Tribal citizens live and it includes the Tribal school and playground. We have deep concern about our water quality, air quality, quality of life and our health for today and the future generations.”
The Wishbone Hill coal mine also threatens a million-dollar fish passage restoration project on Moose Creek recently completed by the Tribe and its partners to bring back the local salmon runs to habitats used by salmon before coal mining.
Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo, who represented the Tribe in this issue, said, “It makes no sense to put a strip mine in people’s backyards, especially on lands so important to Tribal citizens. We’re happy we could help the Tribe get this outdated permit thrown out.”