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Usibelli Coal Mine Permits Invalid, Alaska Activists Claim In Wishbone Hill Lawsuit

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A lawsuit filed in federal court says an Alaska coal mining company is preparing to dig at a Matanuska-Susitna prospect without valid permits.

The lawsuit filed by five nonprofit groups Tuesday claims Healy-based Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. is moving forward with strip mine operations at the Wishbone Hill Mine near Sutton with permits that should have been terminated because mining did not begin in a timely fashion, as the permits require.

"If Usibelli Coal Co. wishes to be a responsible company and good neighbor, they must follow the rules, including the most basic — obtaining a valid permit to operate," Jeremiah Millen, director of Friends of Mat-Su, said in an announcement of the lawsuit filed in Anchorage.

Mine spokeswoman Lorali Simon said the lawsuit didn't come as a shock.

"Usibelli maintains our position, as does the state of Alaska, that we are operating under valid permits," she said. "Using the court system is the environmentalists' favorite tool in the toolbox, so it is not surprising that they are trying to sue over this project, as well."

The dispute pits a longtime Alaska mining company against neighbors living in a historic mining district who claim the industry will harm their home values, water quality and health.

Sutton-Alpine stretches between Miles 52 and 72 of the Glenn Highway, starting about 11 miles northeast of Palmer. The population is just under 1,500, according to a state database.

The lawsuit acknowledges that Sutton once boomed as a mining town and coal was the principal economic activity until 1968, when mining ended. However, it also says Alaska Natives used the area for subsistence activities well before that, and the current economy is driven by tourism and small businesses.

The groups claim the state issued five-year mining permits to another company, Idimitsu Alaska, in 1991, and approved transfer of the permits to North Pacific Mining Corp. four years later. Neither company started mining as required by the permits, according to the lawsuit, and the permits should have been terminated.

The permits were transferred to Usibelli in 1997, but mining activity did not begin until June 2010, according to the lawsuit.

The state Department of Natural Resources "is still reviewing the renewal application for the Wishbone Hill Mine. The Department is working to get a decision on the renewal application as soon as possible," Russell Kirkham, the coal program manager for the Alaska Division of Mining, Land & Water, said in an email to The Associated Press.

Friends of Mat-Su took issue with the permits in September. The group asked the state Department of Natural Resources to order a halt to Usibelli operations, but that has not happened, according to the lawsuit. A similar request was made to the federal Office of Surface Mining.

"We don't want to wait for another construction season to roll around and for Usibelli to continue business as usual with what we believe is an invalid permit," Kirby Spangler, president of Castle Mountain Coalition, said Wednesday from his home about a mile from the mine site.

The groups are seeking an injunction to stop mining and related activity such as road-building.

The other plaintiffs are Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club.

A state hearing on the mine in September at Palmer drew proponents and critics. Usibelli has said Wishbone Hill would bring 75 to 125 high-paying jobs to the area.

Critics said a mine operating less than a mile from homes would present environmental and health concerns, such as coal dust.

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