L.A. may oppose mine expansion near Bryce
Energy • Southern California giant eager to kick its coal habit and reliance on facility near Bryce Canyon.
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Los Angeles wants to quit coal, and some officials there want no part of an expanded Utah mine near Bryce Canyon National Park.

The City Council in August will debate a resolution asking the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to deny Alton Coal Development permission to expand its Coal Hollow Mine onto public lands some 10 miles southwest of the park.

The proposed resolution targets air and light pollution that proponents fear will cheapen the park's pink cliffs, but it also notes that California's largest city has a goal of rapidly replacing the 39 percent of its power currently coming from coal.

"Bryce Canyon National Park's famous vistas and world-renowned dark night sky, which stargazers from around the world travel to Bryce Canyon National Park to see, are threatened due to air pollution from the proposed mining operation," the resolution asserts.

Council member Paul Koretz's proposal also objects to the 300 daily trucks that would traverse the Highway 89 scenic byway if the BLM allows the 665-acre private strip mine to expand onto 3,500 acres of federal land. The agency is currently completing an environmental review, a draft version of which recommended approval.

The resolution was to be debated this week in Los Angeles, but the council pulled back and decided to return to it after its July recess. The city's public utility issued a statement supporting the resolution's "spirit" but sounding a cautious note about the billions of dollars it is spending to clean up its energy sources.

Los Angeles gets a quarter of its power from the Intermountain Power Project in Delta, a customer of the Alton mine. That plant serves dozens of Utah towns and cooperatives but sends at least three-quarters of its electricity to Southern California, and 45 percent to Los Angeles alone.

Kane County Commissioner Douglas Heaton lives less than a mile from the mine and said opponents overstate the nuisance.

"I wish Los Angeles [officials] would come and tour the mine," he said.

A recent tour by county and National Park Service officials paused in the nearby town of Alton to listen to the mine, he said, but heard nothing but one car and one truck. From his home, just over a slight rise from the site, he said, no mine lights are visible. And, he added, mountains stand between the park's viewing points and the proposed expansion.

People seem to use the park's proximity to advance a larger, no-coal agenda, Heaton said. "The concerns that have been expressed over and over by those who have opposed the mine have no basis in actual fact."

Koretz did not respond to an interview request. His staff declined comment until the council takes up the question later this summer.

Los Angeles is attempting to replace its coal power with natural gas and renewable plants, including the new Milford wind farm in southwestern Utah. Its mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has pledged to cut off coal power to the city by 2020. It will be a difficult and costly shift — if possible in that time frame — partly because the city has a contract to take power from the Intermountain plant through 2027. But the city already has announced plans to shut down its Navajo coal plant in Arizona early, and a utility official confirmed there are discussions with the other Intermountain customers about converting it to natural gas.

Villaraigosa's edict already has been felt in Utah, where the Delta power project canceled plans for a third coal plant in 2009.

Los Angeles could not unilaterally decide to convert the Utah generators early, and would still have to pay for its contractual share of power even if it stopped using it, Intermountain Power Agency spokesman John Ward said.

One way or another, Los Angeles appears bound to stop buying from Intermountain if it keeps burning coal after 2027. California state law forbids renewing contracts for coal power because of climate-change concerns. Faced with losing its major customers, Ward said, IPA is discussing whether to convert all or part of the project to increasingly cheap natural gas.

A spokeswoman for Villaraigosa said he will review the resolution before taking a position on it.

An attorney for the Cedar City-based coal company did not respond to a request for comment.

Heaton said the coal mine is important to his county's economic future, but he understands Los Angeles has different values and is free to stake out its own position. Regardless, he said, he believes the mine has a future.

"There will be demand for the coal," he said, "whether California wants it or not."

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spokesman Joseph Ramallo noted that the city is investing heavily in Utah's renewable-energy field, including new transmission lines to deliver wind, solar and geothermal energy.

bloomis@sltrib.com