In December 2017, about a year after the chief executive officer of a Mexican construction company told President Donald Trump that he would lend his services to help build a wall at the border, a company-owned coal mine in La Plata County received federal approval for a 950-acre underground expansion.
Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua has operated the King II coal mine near Hesperus since 2007; the mine supplies thousands of tons of coal each year to GCC cement plants in New Mexico, South Dakota, Colorado and Texas, as well as Mexico. Now, national watchdog groups are calling for an investigation into ties between the company and the Trump administration.
GCC didn't wind up helping at the border, according to a statement from the company: "GCC does not provide direct services to this administration nor have we to any previous administration. Cement, and therefore concrete, is a key building material for most infrastructure projects, like bridges and roads. We make cement and sell it to the contractors building the infrastructure of North America. We follow the rules and regulations of our industry and act with integrity throughout all our lines of business."
But what concerns activists is that the expansion request went through an expedited approval process, says Chris Saeger, spokesperson for Accountable.US, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. “There was an unusual coincidence, to put it generously, between the approval on the expansion of the mine by Durango and the company’s commitment to provide concrete for the border wall,” he explains.
Normally, coal companies operating in Colorado have their expansion requests reviewed and decided upon by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management office in Lakewood. If the company — or anyone else — disagrees with the opinion, they can file an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals.
In this case, however, the lease modification request was signed directly by DOI Assistant Secretary (now DOI Deputy Director) Katherine MacGregor, making it more difficult for those opposed to the request to file an appeal, according to Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director of Wild Earth Guardians.
“When somebody from the secretary’s office signs the decision, the only way to challenge it is to go to federal court,” Nichols says. “Filing an appeal is no small effort, but filing a federal lawsuit is much more time-intensive, much more resource-consuming.”
His organization has seen a number of leases and lease modifications approved through the DOI secretary’s office since Trump took office, Nichols reports. “I think they deliberately tried to take that appeal step out of the process so that it would dissuade people who may believe a decision is illegal or invalid and make it more difficult for them to challenge it,” he says.
BLM spokesperson Derrick Henry issued the following statement to Westword in response to the environmentalists' charges regarding the approval process: “The premise of your story is preposterous. The BLM followed all relevant laws and regulations. We will continue to take actions that support our multiple use, sustained yield mission for public lands, supporting American jobs and safe domestic energy production.”
GCC, too, denies that the lease was approved through an expedited process.
Western Values Project, however, has issued a report that documents Raya Treisner, GCC’s lead lobbyist at international lobbying firm Wilmerhale, meeting with multiple high-ranking DOI officials, including MacGregor, in 2017. GCC paid Wilmerhale $20,000 for lobbying services in 2020. Wilmerhale has ties to the Trump administration, representing both the president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, according to Politico.
Accountable.US is calling for a deeper federal investigation. “When companies like GCC want to get something done, they hire lobbying firms that have lobbying door connections to the administration,” Saeger says. “Congress should act as a separate and equal branch of government and conduct an investigation into what the conditions were and the correspondence surrounding this deal.”
Donald Sherman, deputy director for Citizens for Ethics, a D.C-based watchdog group, is also calling for an investigation by both Congress and the DOI’s Office of Inspector General. “This is not an issue or concern related to one law firm," he notes. "This is an issue and question related to influence and patronage that is endemic to the Trump administration.”
Citizens for Ethics investigated then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, as well as David Bernhardt, the Coloradan who became head of the Interior department after Zinke resigned in 2018; both Zinke and Berhardt have significant ties to the extraction industry, Sherman says.
“It’s important to understand what happened in this GCC contract and who was involved in the decision-making. And if that went through the normal process, or if — as has been the case in other instances — the president or someone high up in the administration put their thumb on the scale so that the president’s allies could be involved in approving the contract,” Sherman says.
According to Saeger, the current administration has repeatedly tried to gut public processes and environmental standards to benefit the extraction industry; he points to how Trump has weakened the National Environmental Policy Act and lowered water- and air-quality standards. “There’s any number of things they’ve done in order to try to benefit the mining and the coal and the oil and gas industry at the expense of Colorado’s outdoor heritage and economy,” he says.
In 2019, King II was approved for another expansion that could extend the life of the mine for at least twenty years; the company received an additional 2,462 acres that would open an estimated 12 million tons of coal.
The decision to sell the lease came from the Secretary of the Interior’s office, not the BLM, which was unusual, says Nichols.
In another statement, the BLM's Henry responds: “The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) review of the King II Mine in Colorado followed the BLM's longstanding and lawful protocols, including multiple opportunities for public involvement. Further, this is only the first step before mining on this tract can occur — the operator still must obtain additional permits under SMCRA [Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act], and the ASLM [Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management] still must approve a mining plan.”
In 2018, when BLM received a lease application from GCC, it prepared an extensive environmental assessment jointly with the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement, Henry says, noting that the bureau also engaged in public involvement efforts, including open houses, to get community feedback.
On October 15, 2019, after no significant potential environmental impact was found, BLM announced the approval of the expansion.
But that environmental assessment still raises concerns for advocacy groups. Nichols notes that the BLM has frequently sided with the coal industry, ignoring concerns of nearby landowners and the public. There are not only climate concerns associated with the coal plant, but also health impacts for rural communities, he says: “This is a big expansion that we’re talking about. ... It’s an entirely new area that’s requiring a totally different kind of development."
And Wild Earth Guardians remains concerned about the 2017 approval process. “We believe that it should have been subject to a much higher level of scrutiny and to a full environmental impact statement process,” Nichols says. King II was "trying to rush the approval, and from our perspective, give the coal company what it wanted as quickly as it wanted.”
Watchdog groups continue to push for more oversight. Concludes Accountable.US's Saeger: “Coloradans should have confidence that decisions, like the ones about this coal mine, have only to do with whether or not it’s a good idea on its merits, and not to do with conducting suspicious deals that help the president and his allies."
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