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By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

Usibelli Coal Mine celebrates 75 years

AMA honors Alaska's longest lived mine at Fairbanks gathering

 

Last updated 4/6/2018 at 5:22am

Joe Usibelli, Jr.

FAIRBANKS – 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of Alaska's longest lived mining operation, the Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.'s coal mining operations near Healy – a monumental milestone honored by the mining community during the Alaska Miners Association Biennial Spring Conference in Fairbanks.

"I guess as far as 75 years ago, that's a pretty amazing number when you think about it and in some ways we're a survivor and success is a combination of a lot of hard work and a lot of luck, frankly," said Usibelli Coal President Joe Usibelli, Jr., reflecting on the company's history during a March 29 banquet at the AMA conference.

"So, 75 years of luck, 75 years of perseverance, 75 years of, at times, tenacity – those are important elements," Joe added to the list of key ingredients of Usibelli's longevity.

These are family traits that are at least as long-lived as the mining operations started by Joe Jr.'s grandfather, Emil, in 1943.

Remarkable heritage

Usibelli Coal Mine traces its roots to World War II, when Emil landed a contract to deliver 10,000 tons of coal to Ladd, a strategic military base on the outskirts of Fairbanks known today as Fort Wainwright.

Working with only a small International TD-40 dozer to strip the overburden off coal seams near the town of Healy and push the exposed coal onto a GMC logging truck converted to haul the fuel 110 miles north to Fairbanks, many of Emil's coal mining contemporaries were skeptical of his ability to meet his obligations.

With the combination of hard work, perseverance, tenacity and luck reflected by his grandson, Emil did deliver that first contract and began what is now the longest lived mining operation in Alaska.

Today, the fourth-generation, family-owned Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. delivers roughly 1 million tons of ultra-low-sulfur coal to six plants that deliver low-cost power and heat to Interior Alaska, including the same heat and power plant at Fort Wainwright U.S., the Army post that Emil delivered coal to in 1943.

"I have no doubt that if my grandfather Emil was alive today, he would be tremendously proud of what we built on the foundation he began to lay in 1943 – this mine has a remarkable heritage and a bright future," Joe, Jr. reflected.

Amazing team

While hard work, perseverance, tenacity and luck all played a role, people are the key ingredient to Usibelli Coal Mine's remarkable heritage and bright future.

"The most important element is selecting good people to be on your team," Joe, Jr. told his fellow miners at the AMA conference. "We couldn't have succeeded without that – it is of the utmost importance."

Today, Usibelli Coal Mine has roughly 110 employees, about 40 percent of these workers are second, third and fourth generation employees of the mining operation near Healy.

"I am proud to lead such an amazing group of people," said Joe, Jr.

This pride is likely rooted in the fact that the Usibelli team reflects a culture of responsibility nurtured by the company.

"I cannot give responsibility, all I can do is give opportunity," Joe, Jr. said. "They have to take responsibility – and my team has done that over and over and over again."

The team's safety record is a reflection of this responsibility – 423 days without a lost-time accident at the Interior Alaska coal mine.

"It is not an accident that with our commitment to safety that we continue to set records over and over – it's the normal thing, the normal occurrence to go more than a year without a single lost-time accident anywhere in our company," Joe, Jr. said. "Our sister organization, Aurora Energy is now over three years without a lost-time accident. It's not only our commitment and management but it's the entire team from top to bottom is the commitment that makes that a success and makes that happen."

The Usibelli president said Alaska's mining sector as a whole does not get the credit it deserves for its record of safety in an industry that involves inherent risks.

"It's a new culture that all of us have in the mining industry ... and we don't get enough credit for it as an industry," he told his colleagues at the banquet. "We do it very well. We do it better than anybody else in the United States, frankly."

Bright future

Despite Usibelli Coal Mine's remarkable heritage and current achievements, the future of Alaska's longest lived mine has not always been certain.

"We've just gone through eight years of an administration that I felt like Bob – the cartoon with the deer that has the bullseye on the side with a caption on the side that says 'bummer of a birthmark Bob' –because that's just what the coal industry has gone through," Joe, Jr. said in reference to the Obama administration.

"The war on coal is real, it is absolutely real – we felt it every single day in our industry. It got to the point it was depressing at times," he added. "But we bore down, had tenacity. We got through it and now there's a sense of hope in our industry."

Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.

Usibelli Coal Mine delivers roughly 1 million tons of coal to six Interior Alaska power plants, including Golden Valley Electric Association's Healy Unit #1 (foreground) and Healy Unit #2 (background) at the mouth of the mine near the town of Healy.

With this hope for the coal mining sector, the future of Usibelli and the low cost fuel it delivers to Interior Alaska's power plants is better lit.

"It just so happens, our new mining area, Jumbo Dome has enough coal for the next 75 years at our present rate of production," said Joe, Jr.

"Why is that important?" he asked.

The answer to this question is simple – if coal wasn't fueling six power plants, it is estimated that it would cost US$200 million more each year to deliver electricity to Interior Alaska.

Joe, Jr. said this is something that should be on the minds of the military bases, businesses and roughly 100,000 residents that benefit from the lower cost power fueled by Usibelli coal.

"To say that energy costs aren't important is a fallacy," said Joe.

With the combination of hard work, perseverance, tenacity, luck, good people – and an appreciation of the low-cost electricity fueled by Usibelli coal – Joe, Jr. sees a bright future for the mine his grandfather began in 1943.

 

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