McEntee: Southern Utah strip mine threatens a way of life
Just 10 miles southwest of Bryce Canyon National Park, huge machines are tearing away sagebrush and soil to get at coal deposits just below the surface of what is Utah's first strip mine.
Up north, in Hatch and Panguitch, merchants and residents are watching old walls shed bits of brick as rumbling semis haul coal along the two-lane strip of U.S. 89 that bisects both towns.
The Coal Hollow Mine has long been sought by some in the area for good jobs in a dreary economy and reviled by others who cherish the air, land and sky of southern Utah.
The mine's owners, four of whom live in Florida and another in Colorado, plan to pull 2 million tons of coal a year for three years out of 244 acres of private land just inside Kane County.
But their Alton Coal Development LLC also has its sights on Bureau of Land Management territory. The agency is working on an environmental impact statement on Alton's application, which won't be released for another three or four months at least.
The coal itself is going to the Intermountain Power Plant near Delta, in Millard County, which sends 75 percent of its electricity to the Los Angeles area and the rest to cities and towns along the Wasatch Front.
In its pitch for permission, Alton said the mine would create 150 new jobs, 50 for truck drivers. It certainly seemed alluring in Garfield County, where the average wage is $471 a week the lowest in the state.
But Panguitch shopkeeper Bobbi Bryant says she knows of only three hires, although the company has said it plans more.
And since the mine recently opened, it's received two violation notices, one ordering the company to remove snow and sediment along Robinson Creek, and another to remove stockpiled topsoil near the creek and its diversion and secure and seed the stockpiles.
Last summer Bruce McMahan, a Panguitch property owner, took me on a tour of the land near Alton, a hamlet where some of the stop signs just say "Whoa."
He showed me the creek and meadows along U.S. 89, and pointed out the deep coral cliffs just east of Bryce. We talked about sage grouse and the elk, antelope and deer whose migratory routes are already interrupted by the scenic byway, which in turn attracts bicyclists, motorcyclists, big RVs and tour buses.
I imagined the double-trailer coal trucks roaring among them.
Meanwhile, the Southern Utah Wilderness Society, joined by the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council and the National Park Conservation Association, are heading back to the Utah Supreme Court.
The coalition is asking the court to order the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to take another look at the permitting decision, and suspend mining operations until worries about safety, health and environmental issues can be addressed. The case likely won't reach oral arguments until late this year, says SUWA attorney Steve Bloch.
So the trucks will keep on rolling, even as school kids walk home and tourists flock to the intoxicating beauty of land and sky.
From afar, I worry about all of them.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at email@example.com.