Of Alaska’s six currently operational mines, only one produces coal, a resource that supplies energy and heat to more than 37 percent of the Interior, according to the Alaska Energy Authority.
Usibelli Coal Mine near Healy has been a family-run operation since before Alaska obtained statehood. It holds five permits to mine areas within the Nenana coal field. The land within the area is leased by Usibelli from the state.
The company’s first ever tractor stays parked outside the main office while haulers and bulldozers five times its size help extract the mineral buried deep underground.
Coal is found in seams underneath dirt and other rocks that miners refer to as overburden. Removing all the overburden to get access to the coal underneath is no small task, which is why Usibelli miners have a saying: “Mining coal is easy. Getting to it is the hard part.”
Crews drill holes in the ground and load them with explosives. Blasting is only done three to four times a year. Once an area is blasted, miners must still remove all the waste rock.
Randy Killian is one of two men at Usibelli who operates the dragline, an enormous machine that moves mountains of waste rock to gain access to the coal.
“It’s similar to a crane but we’re actually picking up dirt,” says Killian.
The dragline was named “Ace In The Hole” by Healy schoolkids during a community naming contest. The name relates to Poker Flats, the area where the company first began mining.
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