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Usibelli tests export possibilities

Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2010

A test to determine whether coal could be shipped from Port MacKenzie to markets abroad has proven successful, officials say. The result puts Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. one step closer to opening its Wishbone Hill deposit near Palmer, and brings the Matanuska-Susitna Borough closer to housing a profitable port.

To celebrate the occasion, a bundle of VIPs and reporters were invited to the port in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough June 5.

Some 76,000 tons of coal from Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. in Healy were loaded onto the super panamax-size vessel in Seward, and 1,250 tons were added once the ship docked at Port MacKenzie. The coal ultimately landed in Japan.

The ship is the largest to dock at MacKenzie, measuring in at 754 feet long and 125 feet wide, with a draft of 45.3 feet.

For Usibelli, the test was intended to see how effectively coal could be transported from its proposed Wishbone Hill deposit. For the borough, the test provided evidence that the Port MacKenzie rail extension project is worth an investment.

"The real crown jewel for the port development is the rail extension," said Marc Van Dongen, the port's director.

The coal was trucked in from Usibelli's mine in Healy, but the borough said in a written release that without a rail extension, trucking the coal in is prohibitively expensive.

The rail extension would connect the port to the Alaska Railroad Corp.'s existing main line track north of the port. An environmental impact statement record of decision is set to be issued this fall, Van Dongen said, and will determine which of several proposed routes the extension will run through.

Though the test strengthens its case for wanting to develop the new Wishbone Hill deposit near Palmer, Healy's main port for exporting coal will remain in Seward, said Robert Brown, a project manager with Usibelli.

Coal from the mine is brought by rail to the Port of Seward. If completed, the Port MacKenzie rail extension would enable a similar arrangement for the new deposit.

Though neighbors are concerned about the risk of noise and pollution where the new deposit would be developed, Brown is optimistic that the effort will be successful.

"There are always going to be people who are against this project," Brown said.

A $57 million state appropriation was proposed for the rail extension in the state capital budget, but Gov. Sean Parnell vetoed $22 million, leaving $35 million for the project.

Van Dongen doesn't see this as a significant roadblock.

At the celebration, employees of J-Power, the Japanese coal energy company importing the coal, took guests on a tour of the vessel.

Guests went from the vessel's surface deck up into the bridge, and then down below into the engine room. The massive engine whirred and whizzed as guests marveled at its size and 60,641 horsepower capacity.

Seven to nine vessels like this one could begin using the port for coal export starting in 2012, the borough said.

Sean Manget can be reached at sean.manget@alaskajournal.com.



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