The Chickaloon Village Traditional Council (Chickaloon), the Tribal government for a federally-recognized Ahtna Athabascan Tribe called Chickaloon Native Village, applauded a long-awaited decision today by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) to inspect the Wishbone Hill coal strip mine, which straddles land sacred to the Tribe. The inspection is the first step in ordering operator Usibelli Coal Mine to shut down unless and until it replaces the mine’s 25-year-old permit, long since expired under federal law. A new permitting process will give Chickaloon a voice on a project that could drastically change the Tribe’s way of life.
Represented by Earthjustice, the Tribe has engaged the unlawful mine both in and out of court. In July 2016, the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska ruled that the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) is unambiguous: if a company doesn’t start mining within three years, the permit expires. Though its permit was issued in 1991, Usibelli did not even start building an access road until 2010.
OSM advised Alaska that “the implication of the Court’s decision is that Usibelli is currently mining without a valid permit at the Wishbone Hill Mine” and gave the State an opportunity to justify its failure to correct the problem. Today, OSM rejected the State’s justifications for inaction and ordered a federal inspection—the next step in a process that should put an end to the unpermitted mining.
The Wishbone Hill area has been important to the people of the Chickaloon Native Village and their ancestors for thousands of years. The Tribe lives, hunts, fishes, educates its children, and performs spiritual and cultural activities on land near the mine.
“It’s really disturbing that the Department of Natural Resources has bent over backward to allow this outdated permit to remain in place,” said Lisa Wade, a Member of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. “We commend the Office of Surface Mining for enforcing the laws that protect our community when the State has failed to do so. Usibelli is trying to start up a toxic coal strip mine on lands that are sacred to us, using a permit that was issued 25 years ago. This mine threatens our children’s health, our salmon, our water and air quality, our traditions, and our way of life.”
"Wishbone Hill is no place for a coal mine, never mind one that got its permit a quarter-century ago," said Tom Waldo, the Earthjustice attorney who represented Chickaloon in the case. "It's time for a fresh look and for fresh thinking about how to provide energy in the era of climate change."