WildEarth Guardians takes a legal shot at Western U.S. coal mining

WildEarth Guardians has gotten very ambitious with its latest anti-coal lawsuit, saying that if it wins, it could shut down coal mining in much of four Western U.S. states.

WildEarth Guardians on Feb. 28 filed suit against the U.S. Interior Department to overturn what it called the agency’s “shadowy” approval of coal mining throughout the West.

“The public has taken a backseat to the demands of coal companies in the Rocky Mountain West,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “With no transparency, we have no guarantee that coal mining in the Rockies is safeguarding our environment, protecting our communities, and that it’s actually in the public interest.”

Not only is this coal burned in power plants, ultimately producing hundreds of millions of tons of CO2, a key global warming pollutant, but mining is leading to air pollution, water contamination, and putting wildlife at risk, the group said. The Western U.S., which is the source of more than 60% of all coal burned in the U.S., mainly out of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, endures a disproportionate brunt, the group said.

The suit targets Interior’s “illegal” approval in the 2007-2012 period of mining of federally owned coal at seven mines in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, as well as the role of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement, which oversees coal mining in every U.S. state where this is coal mining.

Under federal law, Interior has to approve a “Mining Plan” before a company can mine federal coal reserves. WildEarth’s complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, challenges Interior’s alleged failure to provide any notice or opportunity for public comment on the plans before approving them. Public notice has to be provided due to the fact that the Interior can only approve the mining of federally owned coal if it is deemed to be in the public interest, the group reasoned.

The WildEarth suit targets only the most “egregious” Mining Plans, including plans for:

  • BHP Billiton’s San Juan deep mining operation in New Mexico;
  • the Colowyo strip mine in Colorado of the Western Fuels Association and the Trapper strip mine in Colorado of Tri-State Generation and Transmission;
  • the Black Thunder (Arch Coal), Cordero Rojo (Cloud Peak Energy) and School Creek (undeveloped operation of Peabody Energy) strip mines in the Wyoming PRB; and
  • the Spring Creek (Cloud Peak Energy) strip mine in the Montana end of the PRB.

In addition to the failure to provide public notice, the suit also challenges the ostensible failure of Interior to analyze the environmental impacts of coal mining—particularly the air quality impacts—as well as the related impacts of coal combustion, WildEarth said. The suit seeks to halt mining operations at these mines until Interior and OSM fulfill their obligations to the public and the environment, WildEarth added.

This is not the first such suit with a similar theme. WildEarth, for example, has tried unsuccessfully in recent years to get federal courts to require that Interior’s Bureau of Land Management take into account greenhouse gas emissions when leasing Powder River Basin coal reserves.

Lawsuit outlines Interior approvals of all seven plans

In describing each of the contested plan approvals, the Feb. 28 lawsuit said:

  • A 2007 Colowyo Mining Plan approval authorized surface mining, a production rate of up to 9 million tons per year, and ultimately recovery of an additional 43 million tons of coal from 5,219 acres. Under the decision, the life of the mine would continue for an additional 11 years. Colowyo and Trapper primarily serve Tri-State’s nearby Craig power plant.
  • The 2009 Trapper Mining Plan approval authorized surface coal mining, a production rate of up to 2.6 million tons per year, and ultimate recovery of 17.4 million tons of coal from 10,382.3 acres. Under the decision, the life of the mine would continue for an additional 11 years.
  • The 2012 Spring Creek Mining Plan approval authorized surface coal mining, a production rate of up to 24 million tons per year, and ultimate recovery of 117.3 million tons of coal from 428.3 acres. Under the decision, the life of the mine would continue for an additional 10.9 years.
  • The 2008 San Juan Mining Plan approval authorized underground mining, a production rate of up to 8 million tons per year, and ultimate recovery of 36.6 million tons of coal from 4,483.88 acres. Under the decision, the life of the mine would be extended for an additional 11 years. San Juan also has a surface mine, but that’s not named in this suit. All of this coal goes to the nearby San Juan power plant of Public Service Co. of New Mexico.
  • The 2010 School Creek Mining Plan authorized new surface coal mining, an increased production rate of up to 40 million tons per year, and ultimate recovery of 792 million tons of additional coal from 7,394 acres. Under the decision, the life of the mine would be for 21 years. This is an undeveloped mine that is sandwiched between Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine to the north, and Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle mine to the south.
  • The 2011 Black Thunder Mining Plan approval authorized surface mining, an increased production rate of up to 82 million tons per year, and ultimate recovery of 45.1 million tons of additional coal from 438 acres. Under the decision, the life of the mine would continue for 22 years. Black Thunder was the nation’s second biggest coal mine in 2012, producing 93.1 million tons, trailing North Antelope Rochelle’s 107.6 million tons.
  • The 2012 Cordero Rojo Mining Plan approval authorized surface mining, an increased production rate of up to 65 million tons per year, and eventual recovery of 221 million tons of additional coal from 570.3 acres. Under the decision, the life of the mine would continue for seven years.
About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.