HEALY, Alaska — Rarely do anti-coal activists venture into the tight-knit coal mining community of Healy. But they did last week and the result was good conversation.
This was a community forum led by local teens, who laid down clear ground rules.
Tri-Valley High School senior Malia Walters asked for polite and respectful behavior from the audience. She asked them to “demonstrate the most difficult part of communication. Listening.”
Seventy-five people showed up for this forum on energy at the local library. It featured two different points of view: Joe Usibelli Jr., of Usibelli Coal Mine, and Jamey Duhamel, of Castle Mountain Coalition, from the Matanuska Valley.
Students from the high school’s contemporary conflicts class made presentations on the benefits of alternative energy and the benefits of coal.
Then the featured speakers took the microphone.
Duhamel is a volunteer with Castle Mountain Coalition, a nonprofit organization in the Matanuska Valley, whose mission is to protect the Matanuska and Susitna rivers’ watersheds.
She lives in Sutton and recently learned her family home is “smack dab in the middle of three coal mine proposals.”
One of those proposed coal mines is Wishbone Hill, which Usibelli plans to develop.
For the past five years, she has dedicated her life to learning about coal mining and raising awareness on how it might affect her community.
She painted a grim picture of the future of coal — on health, on costs, on the environment and on the economy.
“People are turning their backs against coal,” she said. “Whether that’s good or bad, that’s what is happening.”
She encouraged turning to dependable renewable energy as an infinite fuel source — geothermal, wind, tidal energy and hydro.
“Coal is our past, not our future,” she said. “We are currently depending on a system that is finite. We need those resources to develop renewable resources, before we find ourselves without alternative energy to use.”
It was no surprise Joe Usibelli Jr., of Usibelli Coal Mine, offered a different perspective.
“We do live in a coal mining community,” he said. “It has been that way for 100 years now. It’s a vibrant community. It’s a special community.”
The coal mine employs multiple generations of Healy families, practices good stewardship and meets a mountain of federal and state standards to allow the mining to continue, he said.
“Coal is vital to Alaska,” he said. “Thirty percent of electricity produced in Interior Alaska is from coal. It is the cheapest cost in Interior Alaska.”
It directly provides more than 500 jobs in the Interior and about 650 jobs statewide, he said.
While Duhamel suggested coal is losing users, Usibelli said global consumption of coal is expected to increase 25 percent in the next decade.
“China is not going to reduce use of coal,” he said. “India will double use of coal in the next 25 years or less. So coal is going to be part of the energy picture, no matter what”
“Coal isn’t quite the No. 1 energy source in the world, but it will be within five years,” Usibelli said. “Coal is the most abundant energy resource in the world.
“In Alaska, we have great amounts of it. In Healy, we have great amounts of it.”
“We’re not going to run out,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Coal production, Usibelli said, is the energy solution for the rest of the world — especially when it is done right, like Usibelli does it, he said.
The issues of air quality and water quality, reclamation and safety always have been there. And those issues, he said, are addressed better every year.
The coal industry meets every statutory mandate that is imposed because it is required and because Usibelli wants to meet those standards for the well being of the community, he said.
“We take that seriously,” Usibelli said.
Clearly, the perspectives are different.
Although coal mining historically opened the Sutton area, people who live there now bought homes with no coal mining on the horizon.
People who move to Healy know there is a coal mine here. It has been here a long time.
“Everyone who lives here lives here by choice,” Duhamel said. “There’s a long and prosperous relationship with coal in Healy. In Mat-Su, those coal mines closed decades ago.”
People moved to Sutton with no coal mine on their radars, she said.
The idea of coal development is new to these residents.
“Coal was not the future vision of that area,” she said. “But now they want to create a coal industry there. It’s absolutely legitimate for people who live there to have concerns about how it will affect (them).”
Duhamel worries about the impact of industrial traffic, as trucks haul coal. In Healy, the railroad carries the coal.
Perhaps the argument Duhamel made that raised the most eyebrows was something she called “social licensing.”
This means a coal mine develops a supportive community by donating to schools and events and participating in local happenings.
Coal mines put more money into the community because it helps their bottom line, she said.
Usibelli has a long history of philanthropy, statewide and locally.
After citing a bit of history, this was the first topic Usibelli addressed.
“Social licensing?” he said. “It’s being a good person. It’s being a good company. That’s what it is. That term didn’t even exist when we were talking and doing it.
“We live it,” he said, and pointed out he grew up in this community. “We don’t do community activities or give to nonprofits because we wouldn’t be in business if we didn’t do that. We do it because it is the right thing to do.
“And the majority of companies are that way,” he said.
Some longtime Healy residents in the audience were anxious to share their thoughts on what it is like to live in Healy, near a coal mine.
Perhaps my favorite comment from the community came from Vicki Nelson.
“It sounds like you have a little bit of fear about what it’s like to live by a coal mine,” she said. “Come up to this coal community and talk to locals. See what we think about living by a coal mine and how it impacts us.”
Duhamel agreed that is probably a great idea.
The next community forum, on Feb. 11, will focus on “How best to educate our children.”
This series also offers dinner as a fundraiser for students going to the Washington, D.C., Close-Up program in the spring.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call her at the office 459-7546 or by cell 322-6334. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.