In a move that could have far-reaching implications for the the West's ailing coal industry, a federal judge in Denver has ruled that U.S. Department of Interior officials failed to follow the law in approving expansion plans at two Colorado coal-mining operations — and that the agency has an obligation, in considering such plans, to take into account not simply the environmental impacts of mining but the negative health effects of burning the coal produced.
Judge Brooke Jackson's decision came last Friday in a lawsuit brought by the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, challenging the DOI's approval of permit revisions at the Colowyo and Trapper coal mines, both of which have been operating in northwest Colorado since the 1970s. Both mines supply fuel to Tri-State Generation and Transmission's 650-megawatt, coal-fired power plant outside Craig.
The Colowyo and Trapper operations met all state requirements for the proposed permit modifications, publishing notices in local newspapers and receiving no requests for a public hearing. However, Jackson found that the DOI's Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement violated the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act in its process of okaying the permits. "OSM did not comply with its most basic NEPA duty of providing public notice," Jackson wrote.
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In addition to a lack of public involvement or review of the process, Jackson also took issue with OSM for failing to take into account the environmental damage associated with coal combustion. In Jackson's view — one increasingly shared by other federal judges — coal mining operations should be evaluated not only for the disturbances onsite, such as effects on air and water quality, but also for the "indirect effects" that will be manifested when the coal is used to generate power. "If OSM can predict how much coal will be produced, it can likewise attempt to predict the environmental effects of its combustion," Jackson wrote. "Just because it does not possess perfect foresight as to the timing or rate of combustion or as to the state of future emissions technology does not mean that it can ignore the effects completely."
The decision was hailed by the plaintiffs as a major shift in the battle over coal and its environmental impacts. "This was about holding the Interior Department accountable to the public," says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. "This is a huge existential issue for the OSM. Their job has been to approve coal mining; now their job has to take into account coal combustion impacts."
While the coal in question has already been mined at the Trapper operation, Jackson directed OSM "to take a hard look" at the Colowyo mining plans and reopen its review process. The ruling comes on the heels of other federal court setbacks for the industry, including U.S. District Judge John Kane's recent decision barring expansion of a coal mine in northwestern New Mexico and Jackson's ruling last summer, in another case involving WildEarth Guardians, that put the brakes on expansion of the West Elk mine near Paonia.
In a statement released late yesterday afternoon, the Colorado Mining Association urged the Office of Surface Mining to appeal Jackson's ruling, contending that its emphasis on "secondary impacts" goes beyond what environmental laws on mining are intended to address. “Last Friday’s decision threatens the jobs and livelihoods of rural Colorado communities, and will do nothing to advance environmental protection," declared CMA president Stuart Sanderson.