Old Utah mine seeking to tunnel past federal coal to reach state tracts

Utah’s Emery Deep Mine is Utah’s oldest active coal mine, churning out high-energy fuel on and off since 1881 from under the mine’s namesake town, where it is once again the largest private employer after an eight-year shutdown.

While plenty of recoverable coal remains in place in existing federal leases held by Bronco Utah Operations Inc., the quality is not optimal. This coal’s high ash content, according to federal land managers, renders it difficult to sell in an already-constrained market. So the company is looking to mine nearby private and state coal.

The problem is this deep coal cannot be reached from the surface without incurring huge costs and environmental impacts. The only viable option for access is to tunnel through nearly a mile of federal coal to reach these deposits, which could add more than two years to the life of the mine, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

Last month, the agency released an environmental assessment of Bronco’s request for a 3,700-foot right of way to reach coal it has leased from the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA. The analysis concluded the project would result in “no significant impact,” effectively greenlighting work that is expected to yield about 1 million tons of coal that could otherwise remain in the ground. About 350,000 tons would come from the SITLA tract, 200,000 tons from the federal right of way itself and the rest from private leases.

The right of way would be 340 feet wide and accommodate six tunnels, each about 20 feet wide and serving a different mine function, such as ventilation, emergency exit and coal extraction.

Led by a Price-based coal entrepreneur, Dan Baker, Bronco acquired the mine in 2015 from CONSOL Mining Co., which had idled operations back in 2010, when the mine was producing about 1.2 million tons a year.

At a time when mines were shuttering or reducing production because of shrinking U.S. demand, Bronco resumed coal production at Emery in 2017 and pulled out 319,000 tons during the first quarter of 2018, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The mine currently employs 85 workers and its output keeps 60 truck drivers busy.

Emery County officials welcomed the mine’s return in a part of Utah hit hard by the loss of mining jobs in recent years.

“To get 80 people back to work is a big deal,” said the county’s public lands director, Ray Peterson. “We are its biggest cheerleaders and wish them well.”

Bart Hyita, a former CONSOL executive, has recently replaced Baker as Bronco’s president and CEO. Bronco officials did not respond to several phone messages.

Mine operators recently submitted a proposed plan to state regulators seeking authorization to switch from room-and-pillar mining to “full extraction,” which they said is needed to keep the mine operating at its existing workings. The application was full of deficiencies, according to the state, particularly in regards to subsidence control. The company acknowledges the ground could drop 3 to 5 feet where it mines out pillars holding up the roof.

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining wants to see the deficiencies corrected before granting the application.