Guerilla bureaucracy erupted Wednesday night when Wasatch Front residents opposing a southern Utah coal mine insisted on making oral arguments at a government meeting where they were supposed to limit themselves to submitting written notes.
Alton Coal Development proposes to expand a private, 635-acre strip mine Coal Hollow Mine, some 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park onto 3,500 acres of public land. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, environmental study consultants and state regulators attended Wednesday's open house at the Salt Lake City Main Library to provide information, but soon found themselves being lectured.
Angered that they had no public forum, many mine opponents told public and company officials they considered the event a sham. Then attorney Pat Shea, a former BLM director in the Clinton administration, cleared a swath of people from one end of the room and said he would take public comments if his former employer wouldn't.
"There's no danger to people expressing themselves in a public meeting," said Shea, an attorney for convicted climate change activist Tim DeChristopher, who's now in federal prison for disrupting a 2008 BLM oil and gas lease.
"Where the danger creeps in is with secret deals."
BLM officials speaking among themselves insisted Shea was not authorized to speak for the agency. They briefly considered stopping him, but ultimately listened as several people stood to say coal is dirty and will blight both the southern Utah landscape and air.
Some opponents held signs with expletives cursing coal, and one read, "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment."
One mine backer rose to speak in favor of jobs for the small town of Alton, where he said all but two people support the project. Utah is recognized as a business-friendly state because of its cheap energy, said Greg Madsen, a Highland resident who works for the Caterpillar equipment dealer supplying the mine.
Shea made clear that he was acting on his own, and not in an official capacity, and that he would be compiling the people's comments to submit to his former employer. About 150 people were in the room at any given time, viewing informational posters or talking.
The impromptu public hearing lasted only about 15 minutes. For the hour before that, mine opponents discussed the plan with agency and company officials, sometimes in animated fashion. Some told a representative for Alton Coal Development that his company was wasting public resources, displacing mule deer and dusting up Bryce Canyon's brilliant night skies.
The official responded that the mine is not in sight of the park, will be continually reclaimed with native vegetation after each new digging cell is unearthed, and will never create a hole larger than what is currently permitted at any one time. When approached by a reporter, he declined to speak on the record.
Many in the room dismissed any hope of reclamation after mining.
"It's not enough to pollute the Wasatch Front," Provo resident and League of Women Voters volunteer Linda Clark complained. "Now we've got to go to the national park."
She said there were more mine supporters at the BLM meetings in southern Utah, and she fears they'll have more voice because officials did "the bare minimum" with the Salt Lake City meeting.
BLM Cedar City District Todd Christensen said it doesn't matter where comments are submitted; all will be considered equally.
The agency is considering written comments until Jan. 27, before making a final decision. It's preliminary study recommended approving mining on the public lands.
To comment by the Jan. 27 deadline:
Write to Alton Coal Tract LBA DEIS, BLM Kanab Office, Attn: Keith Rigtrup, 318 N. 100 East, Kanab UT 84741
Fax to Rigtrup at 435-644-4620
Email to UT_Altoncoal@blm.gov