Leaders from other federal agencies raised concerns about the project's impacts on visitor experiences at the national park, located several miles to the east, and on the Utah prairie dog and other species of special concern.
Now it appears federal biologists worry that surface mining on much of the 3,600-acre tract would take too big a toll on sage grouse habitat.
The draft EIS released last week, however, does not identify a "preferred alternative," instead offering analysis of a range of options that includes not leasing, leasing as proposed and two scaled-down versions.
"They are having a hard time justifying this lease for surface mining," said Tim Wagner of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "There have also been big issues for protecting that region and the outdoor and recreation tourism economy that doesn't sit well with an industrial atmosphere.
"It doesn't make any sense for this sale to go forward."
The draft EIS opens a comment period until Aug. 11. The public is invited to a series of five open houses that conclude July 22 in Alton.
Alton's mine opened a few years ago, tapping private coal south of the town of 120 just off U.S. Highway 89.
Kane and Garfield county leaders support the expansion. They consider the mine critical to the rural area's economic future. State leaders also support the mine, particularly as Utah's productive coal fields on the Wasatch Plateau and Book Cliffs become depleted.
Coal Hollow is just one of three federal coal leases currently in play, all connected with existing mines.
At auction on Wednesday, Bowie Resource Partners submitted the only bid on the 2,692-acre Flat Canyon coal tract — a total of $17.2 million or $6,388.92 per acre. The bid, which translates into 41 cents per ton, still requires a review by a BLM panel to ensure it meets "fair market value" for the 42 million tons of recoverable coal.
This lease also requires annual rent of $3 an acre, plus an $8-a-ton royalty on all production. The Alton lease would pay $12 per ton for the coal that is strip mined.
BLM meanwhile has recently authorized the sale of another 56.6 million tons at the Greens Hollow tract in Sanpete County. The sale is necessary to ensure continuing operations at the Sufco mine, Utah's most productive coal mine. Bowie Resource Partners operates both the underground mines in the Wasatch Plateau.
WildEarth Guardians has blasted the sales, arguing the BLM should not help perpetuate the nation's reliance on coal, the fossil fuel that contributes the most heavily to climate change. The group also complains that Bowie intends to ship the coal overseas. That also appears to be the case with the Alton coal, which is of a lower quality than the low-sulphur bituminous product that comes out of Sufco.
According to the new EIS, Alton intends to develop a rail loadout on the Union Pacific line at Iron Springs, 11 miles west of Cedar City. The mine would truck the coal 110 miles through Panguitch and over the Tushar Mountains on State Route 20.