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BLM Considering Proposal To Expand Coal Mine Near Bryce Canyon National Park


How might expansion of a coal surface mine near Bryce Canyon National Park impact the park's famous geologic displays? Late last year heavy equipment arrived at the site of the Coal Hollow mine to begin operations. Kurt Repanshek photos.

A year after Utah's only coal strip mine opened near Bryce Canyon National Park, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is considering a proposal to greatly expand the operation to more than 3,500 acres.

The release earlier this month of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement laying out the proposal quickly drew reaction from environmental and conservation groups concerned about how it might impact the national park.

One group organized an on-line petition drive opposing the expansion. As of Friday afternoon, it had been signed by more than 21,000 individuals.

Tourism is a $6.2 billion industry in Utah, and the state’s five national parks are a prime driver. From 2009 through 2010 visits to the national parks rose to more than 6 million, and another 4.8 million visited the seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and one national historic site, according to the Utah Office of Tourism.

Coal mining, comparatively, had a direct financial impact of $196 million in 2007, the year with the most detailed information, according to the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.

But the state does have some rich coal reserves that attract interest from mining companies. Since at least 1965 companies have been eyeing the coal reserves in the Alton coal field of southern Utah. Late last year Alton Coal Development, LLC, and its partner, Kane Mining, began to chew into those reserves with their Coal Hollow Mine.

The companies had a permit from the state of Utah to haul away upwards of 2 million tons a year from a 635-acre private reserve located just 3 miles from sleepy Alton, less than 10 miles from the national park and its geologic wonders, and about 5 miles from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Though the life of the operation was estimated at just three years, the companies now are vying for a 25-year lease that would give them a total of 3,576 acres with estimated recoverable coal reserves of 44.9–49.1 million tons. Operations could involve both strip mining and deep mining, according to the BLM.

An expanded operation could bring significant impacts to the region, according to the agency's Draft Environmental Impact Statement:

* The proposed expansion would lead to "increased ambient noise levels, short-term modifications to visual resources, and perceptible increase in nighttime skyglow."

* More air pollutants -- particulate matter (PM)10, PM25, nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide (CO), and sulfur dioxide [SO2]) and hazardous air pollutants (HAP) (benzene, toluene, xylenes, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acrolein -- also would be produced. But the BLM states they would be within National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

* As for cultural resource impacts, the DEIS states that, "(A)rchaeological sites eligible for the National Register would be adversely impacted from the implementation of either action alternative due to surface-disturbing activities associated with mining operations. 

"Underground mining may impact unidentified archaeological sites. Native American traditionally cultural properties would be subject to adverse effects for the life of the mine under either action alternative," the narrative continues. "The Panguitch Historic District and Utah Heritage Highway 89/Mormon Pioneer Heritage Area (US-89) would be subject to adverse effects for the life of the mine under either action alternative."

* Fossil resources also would be lost, according to the document: "It is anticipated that a large number of significant fossils would be destroyed or removed from context..."

Not insignificantly, the operation would have an impact on tourism and public health and safety in the region.

"There would be an adverse impact to recreation, and adverse impacts to sense of community, social well-being, and tourism-related businesses," the DEIS says. "There would be impacts to population, housing, public health, safety, and environmental justice populations."

As for dark night skies, a hallmark of Bryce Canyon, impacts from night operations at the mine would be slight, according to the DEIS.

"The study conducted by Dark Sky Partners concluded that the predicted skyglow visible from Yovimpa Point in Bryce Canyon National Park would be less than that produced by several small towns in the general area," it said. "The study also concluded that the predicted skyglow visible from Brian Head Peak outside of Cedar Breaks National Monument would be much less than skyglow arising from St. George and Cedar City, Utah."

Kevin Poe, a "dark sky" ranger at Bryce Canyon, produced the following 37-minute video that explores how emissions from coal-fired power plants can impact the park's famous hoodoos.

BLM officials are planning a number of meetings in Utah to take comment on the DEIS. The first is scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Festival Hall Convention Center, 96 North Main, in Cedar City.


Add to all this the widely reported and much criticized story that Utah's Republican Governor Gary Herbert "fast tracked" state approval of the mining company's application last year.  This came only a few days after Herbert reportedly received a reported $10,000 campaign donation from the company and at about the same time another scandal broke regarding contracts for a rebuild of I-15 through Utah County near Provo.  In that situation, a contractor who lost out on the bid charged that the state had failed to follow proper bidding procedures and had awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to a contractor who had a close relationship with -- and history of generous donations to -- Gov. Herbert and other Republican members of the state's legislature.  As a result, the losing contractor was paid $13 million in a hush-hush agreement that was disclosed only after investigation by news media.  The Utah legislature was very reluctant to follow up with an investigation of their own and the issue has pretty much died out now.

Pay to play politics?

Please don't let them "ignore it to death".
Investigate it. Report it. We want to know the whole truth!

Where is the NPS on this proposal?  In the entire article, there was not one statement from NPS officials either locally or from IMR regarding any concerns or the adequacy of the environmental document just released by BLM.  From the article you wouldn't have even known that the DEIS was from BLM.  The Secretary of the Interior has responsibility to protect National Parks from outside influences such as this. He also controls BLM so he has absolute control over how the proposal is played out.  As such the effects to Bryce Canyon National Park should be specifically addressed in the DEIS, including cumulative effects, and the NPS should be part of the assessment of these effects.  A strictly incremental analysis should be unacceptable to NPS, as should any attempt to obfuscate the effects by using averages rather than worst case analyses.   BLM in Utah has a history of ignoring effects of its activites on adjacent and nearby NPS areas.  Was the NPS a cooperating agency with the BLM on the document?  If not why not? 

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