Environmentalists: Bury southern Utah coal project
Public lands • BLM expected to release impact statement on Coal Hollow Mine expansion near Bryce.
Published: September 12, 2013 09:35AM
Updated: September 11, 2013 12:38PM
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Matthew Brown | Associated Press file photo In this April 4, 2013 file photo, a mechanized shovel loads coal onto a haul truck at the Cloud Peak Energy's Spring Creek mine near Decker, Mont. Environmentalists in Utah are saying it's better if a proposed min near Alton never got off the ground.

America may need energy, but the country would be better off if federal coal near Alton stayed in the ground, say Utah environmental groups.

“Utah needs another coal mine like we need more bad air,” a Sierra Club-led consortium said in a joint statement Tuesday. The proposed expansion of the Coal Hollow Mine would industrialize the lands near Bryce Canyon National Park for the sake of a low-cost dirty fossil fuel that has no place in the nation’s energy future, said Tim Wagner, Sierra Club’s Utah representative, as he delivered a petition bearing 47,000 signatures to the Bureau of Land Management’s Salt Lake City office.

The federal agency is soon expected to release a supplemental environmental impact statement on Alton’s proposal to strip-mine coal on 3,500 acres of public land adjacent to the private land it currently mines.

“If expansion of the mine is permitted, endangered wildlife like the sage grouse will lose precious habitat, dust from operations will cloud the pristine night sky and amazing vistas in the park, and increased truck traffic will snarl roads and overwhelm local towns, putting the local recreation economy, which relies on the world-class recreation opportunities the park currently provides, at risk,” states the environmentalists’ letter, addressed to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and BLM director Neil Kornze.

A phone message left with Alton Coal Development’s general manager Larry Johnson was not returned Tuesday. The company has reported that the expansion would increase its workforce from 31 to 100 and would generate $1.7 billion in economic activity over 25 years.

But emissions from burning coal takes a big toll on public health, costing Utah as much as $2 billion a year, according to Matt Pacenza, policy director of HEAL Utah.

“Coal is only cheap if you ignore its true costs,” he said.

In the past Johnson has disputed the Alton expansion, which enjoys the support of Kane and Garfield county leaders, would have any impact on park visitors who flock to the ponderosa-covered rim of Bryce Canyon to take in the views from its scenic red cliffs. The park, he argued, is too far away for light and dust from the 24-hour operation to interfere with this experience.

But the National Park Service concluded otherwise in its comments to BLM. The project would also obliterate the southern-most population of greater sage grouse at the very time it is being considered for listing as a endangered species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Environmental opposition may be the least of the mine’s problems as markets for Utah coal become increasingly uncertain.

The mine’s current customer, the Intermountain Power Project near Delta, is under pressure from its major electricity customers in Southern California to switch from coal to natural gas.

The City of Los Angeles, which buys 45 percent of IPP power, intends to end all reliance on coal-fired electricity by 2025 because the fuel emits twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas. The 23 Utah cities that own the plant are being asked to authorize a conversion. On Aug. 27, the Bountiful city council endorsed the switch.

bmaffly@sltrib.com