Is approving a massive new strip mine wedged between two of America’s most visited national parks a good idea? The odds are the Trump Administration will think it is.
The mine in question sits near the Southern Utah town of Alton, a short distance from Bryce Canyon and Zion National parks. There’s an existing coal operation on adjacent state land, which was approved in 2009 over the objection of the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Alton Coal Development Co. (ACD) has applied for a lease to expand the mine onto 3,600 acres of adjacent federal land to access 45 million tons of coal (to put that in perspective, the US produced 845 million tons of coal in 2015, the last year for when figures were available). The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service both called for rejection of the expansion onto federal land, as did nearby Indian Tribes, cultural and conservation groups and more than 175,000 concerned citizens.
Alton Coal Development's current operation on state land has been cited for numerous environmental violations, including allowing polluted wastewater to leak into local streams, and for failure to adequately reclaim lands they’ve already disturbed. The company is private and its ownership is hidden behind legal walls.
If approved, the expansion would more than triple the so called Coal Hollow Mine’s existing footprint, and quadruple its output to 2 million tons of coal a year.
The move onto federal land became possible when the Trump Administration nixed an Obama-era stop and reset of the deeply flawed federal coal leasing program. A decision to move forward is expected in the summer or early fall.
Here’s why the mine is a bad idea:
You could hardly pick a worse place for a massive open pit strip mine. It sits wedged between two of the most visited and loved of America’s National Parks, Bryce Canyon and Zion, which draw nearly seven million visitors annually combined. The parks are connected by a small, two lane road recognized by the state as a scenic byway and officially named “The Mormon Pioneer Heritage Highway” which the majority of tourists visiting both parks must travel. Bryce Canyon National Park, has the darkest nighttime sky of any place in the lower 48 states. Yet a vast expansion of an open pit mining operation 10 miles away, and round the clock operation would likely negate that title.
2. Damage to Tourism
The two lane road that connects the parks would see a dramatic rise in traffic of huge coal trucks. Trucking is the only available method of transporting coal from the mine. Already dozens of trucks rumble the roads every day, shaking the walls and foundations of nearby businesses and homes. If the lease is approved, the coal truck traffic will increase to 300 double trailer coal truck trips per day, according to the National Park Service. As one might expect, tourism is a major driver of the local and regional economy. Jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector make up a higher percentage of private employment in Garfield County—which bills itself as “Bryce Canyon County”—than anywhere else in the state. A dramatic increase in truck traffic or other mining activities won’t make a visit to the parks more appealing. As the Superintendent of Bryce Canyon National Park noted in comments on proposed mine expansion: “Bryce Canyon National Park is the main tourist attraction in the county. We believe that activities such as coal extraction could adversely impact the park’s resources and visitors, and potentially diminish tourism in the area.”
Coal strip mines are also significant sources of air and water pollution, from noxious orange ‘blasting clouds’ to particulate air pollution from the near constant operation of heavy machinery to mine waste dumped or leaking into waterways. The lights from coal mining around Alton will appear significantly brighter than the planet Venus from Cedar Breaks National Monument, about 25 miles away, according the National Park Service.
4. Harm to Wildlife
Other federal agencies have raised concerns about a mine expansion’s impact on threatened sage grouse habitat as well as on the Utah prairie dog, the bald eagle and the Bonneville cutthroat trout. The proposed mining area includes the southern-most habitat in the United States of the non-migratory sage grouse. The company has been cited by the state of Utah for failing to meet sage grouse land rehabilitation requirements (password “ogmguest) as part of existing operations. Alton Coal Development has deviated from the mining methods approved in its permits and failed to properly reseed reclamation areas, backfill mine pits in the time allotted, properly reconstruct Lower Robinson Creek and rehabilitate 355 acres of off-site sage grouse habitat, according to documents filed with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM).The company was also fined $3,200 for improperly constructing ditches that released sediment-laced wastewater.
5. It’s Unnecessary
ACD’s current main customer is a power plant operated by the Intermountain Power Service Corp. in Delta, Utah, owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). LADWP plans to convert the plant from coal to natural gas by 2020 to meet California’s clean energy requirements, and the wishes of its customers. The only other source of sales the company has cited are export markets. Yet global coal markets have atrophied over the last several years as countries like China and India make the transition away from coal. The coal industry, experts agree, is in structural decline.
Plus, for ACD to get its coal to coastal export facilities, the company would have to build an expensive rail “loadout” 120 miles from the mine, which would cut into, if not eliminate, any thin profits most companies are earning on coal from Western mines.
As the state’s largest newspaper, the Salt Lake City Tribune, noted in an editorial opposing any expansion of Alton Coal Development Co’s mine:
“Making sure that the Alton mine doesn’t leave either the locals or the state holding the bag for polluted water and ugly gashes in the ground is particularly important not only because past performance is all too likely to be an indicator of future results, but also because the economic prospects for the mine seem very limited.”
Here’s what happens next: The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management completes a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), and if they decide to move forward will hold an “auction” of the land Alton Coal has proposed for lease. The FEIS is expected in the second half of the summer or in early fall.