FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 25, 2014
Alaskans Win Major Victory in Right to Challenge Coal Strip Mine Permits
State’s loser pays attorneys’ fees law violates rights of citizens, must be rewritten
ANCHORAGE – Residents across southcentral Alaska applauded a decision from the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation (OSM) this week that Alaska’s punitive attorneys’ fees law must be rewritten when it comes to challenges to coal strip mines.
“As Alaskans who must live with the consequences of coal strip mines, we deserve access to the court system and a strong voice in the permitting process,” said Judy Heilman, founding member of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, a group dedicated to protecting the Chuitna River from PacRim Coal’s proposal to strip mine directly through 25 miles of its tributaries. “This week’s decision protects our right as Alaskans to protect the natural resources we rely on.”
Under current Alaska law, people who challenge an agency decision or who sue a coal mining company for violations can be held accountable for the other sides’ attorneys’ fees should they lose. This policy creates a strong chilling effect, deterring many people from going to court to ensure companies are in compliance with mining permits that protect our lands and waters.
This week’s decision from the OSM indicated that Alaska’s attorneys fee rules are inconsistent with federal law and must be rewritten.
“Alaskan residents deserve the opportunity to challenge coal strip mine permits that we believe are illegal without fearing bankruptcy,” said Jamey Duhamel, program director of Castle Mountain Coalition, a non-profit organization working to protect the communities of the Matanuska Valley from Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.’s proposed Wishbone Hill coal strip mine. “With coal companies proposing strip mines within a quarter mile of neighborhoods, this week’s decision ensures we have the tools we need to protect our families.”
Alaska is the only state in the nation with a “loser pays” rule. Alaska once protected anyone challenging decisions implicating public lands, waters, fish or game under the so-called “public litigant rule,” but the passage of HB 145 during the Murkowski Administration eliminated this protection.
According to Trustees for Alaska Executive Director Vicki Clark, the law was changed in 2003 to restrict citizen access to court by changing the way attorney fees are calculated, “making access to court more difficult is just one of the ways the State of Alaska has attempted to cut citizens out of the public process in resource decision making.”
“As residents of Alaska, we should have a strong voice in shaping the decisions that impact our natural resources,” said Heilman. “It’s a sad day when the federal government has to step in to protect the rights of Alaskans while our own state government tries to take them away.”
Judy Heilman, Chuitna Citizens Coalition, 907.583.2277
Jamey Duhamel, Castle Mountain Coalition, 907.982.6828
Vicki Clark, Trustees for Alaska (for legal questions), 907.433.2010
The Chuitna Citizens Coalition is a group of landowners, sport and commercial fisherman, and conservationists working to protect the beautiful Chuitna River from destruction by PacRim Coal.
Castle Mountain Coalition is dedicated to promoting ecological integrity, economic sustainability, and quality of life in the Matanuska watershed.