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The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the permit for a controversial coal strip mine near Bryce Canyon National Park.

The high court Tuesday rejected environmental groups' arguments that the state neglected key permitting requirements and should have demanded more thorough plans for protecting water and historical sites before approving the 635-acre mine operated by Alton Coal Development.

"Today's decision is disappointing," said a news release quoting Steve Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "However, this is too important. We will continue to fight to preserve the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the night skies at Bryce Canyon National Park enjoyed by thousands of tourists each year."

The mine is also located on a major mule deer migration corridor and near breeding grounds for the sage grouse, said Mark Clemens, manager of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club.

Tuesday's opinion "sets the stage," as the environmental groups put it, for a larger fight over a proposed expansion of the mine to about 3,500 acres of federal land. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management backed off an initial approval of Alton Coal's proposal this summer after the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency opposed the expansion.

The BLM delayed a final decision and scheduled a new environmental study on the expansion proposal. A decision is expected next year.

The unanimous opinion issued Tuesday upholds the Utah Board of Oil, Gas, and Mining's approval of the mine, which began operations more than a year ago. The environmental groups argued that the state didn't ensure that archaeological sites near the mine would be protected, noting the possibility of coal-hauling trucks going through the town of Panguitch's historic district.

But the high court rejected that argument.

"The statute cannot reasonably be interpreted to require…that the [state] consider any and every cultural and historic resource outside the permit area," the justices wrote.

They also rejected environmentalists' argument that state rules should be as protective as the federal regulations, and their assertions that the company's plan didn't do enough to ensure the area's water quality wouldn't be affected by the mine.

"Mining requires that there be a protection of water surrounding the mine area…One of the arguments was, [the company] hadn't explained what they would do if they found a problem," said Assistant Attorney General Steven Alder. "The board said…there was enough information there, and the court agreed."

The Alton mine, the only surface coal mine in Utah, is about 10 miles as the crow flies from Bryce Canyon. The mine has faced opposition from environmental groups and residents in the nearby towns of Hatch and Panguitch since it was proposed in 2004, though Kane County officials have supported the project for its economic benefits.

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

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