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Miners fear federal coal reforms jeopardize rural Utah

First Published      Last Updated May 19 2016 10:31 pm

Public hearing » Changes in federal management — including a three-year moratorium on new coal leases — draw a show of industry unity and some dissenting opinions.
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But coal's critics say you don't have to look far to detect problems. Audits have discovered coal companies pay below-market rates to lease coal reserves, underpay royalties and are not always adequately bonded. And now companies are falling into bankruptcy in the face of a collapsing coal demand, raising the possibility that taxpayers will be on the hook for mine reclamation.

Montana rancher Steve Charter, a past president of the North Plains Resource Council, runs cattle over a mine outside Billings.

"For the past 40 years, I have had a ringside seat to personally witness the broken federal program that has allowed coal companies to take advantage of loopholes and giveaways and avoid accountability at the expense of taxpayers, land, air and wildlife," Charter said. "This deeply flawed system has not ensured mined land is reclaimed and aquifers restored. Out of a total of 562 square miles of mined land across Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and North Dakota, only 14 percent has been fully reclaimed."

But many speakers, like Scofield Town Council member Carol Levanger, claimed coal mining's impacts are overstated and royalties ought to be lowered to encourage further production. Levanger's town, population 26, on the Wasatch Plateau has seen active mining on and off since 1877.

"I dare say some would think that place ought to be a barren wasteland. It would be looking like raped land. It does not. It is green, it is beautiful. There is hunting, there is fishing," said Levanger, who works at Skyline. "The mine water runs right behind my house. The dogs play in it. There are fish in the stream. The fish are healthy. They taste good, and I haven't grown a third eyeball yet."

The sessions continue in Knoxville, Tenn., on May 26; Seattle on June 21; and Grand Junction, Colo., on June 23. The BLM is accepting written comments until July 28.

Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at bmaffly@sltrib.com or 801-257-8713.

Twitter: @brianmaffly