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Concerns about sage grouse may scuttle a proposed coal mine expansion near Bryce Canyon National Park.
This month, federal land managers released a new "supplemental" environmental review of the proposed coal sale that concluded the tract may not be suitable for strip mining.
The lease which targets 45 million tons of federal fuel located under a mix of Dixie National Forest and private land would allow Alton's Coal Hollow Mine in Kane County to quadruple its annual production to 2 million tons.
Three years ago, the Bureau of Land Management released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), but quickly withdrew it after 177,000 public comments flooded the agency most opposing the lease.
Leaders from other federal agencies raised concerns about the project's impacts on visitor experiences at the national park, located several miles to the east, and on the Utah prairie dog and other species of special concern.
Now it appears federal biologists worry that surface mining on much of the 3,600-acre tract would take too big a toll on sage grouse habitat.
The draft EIS released last week, however, does not identify a "preferred alternative," instead offering analysis of a range of options that includes not leasing, leasing as proposed and two scaled-down versions.
"They are having a hard time justifying this lease for surface mining," said Tim Wagner of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "There have also been big issues for protecting that region and the outdoor and recreation tourism economy that doesn't sit well with an industrial atmosphere.
"It doesn't make any sense for this sale to go forward."
The draft EIS opens a comment period until Aug. 11. The public is invited to a series of five open houses that conclude July 22 in Alton.
Alton's mine opened a few years ago, tapping private coal south of the town of 120 just off U.S. Highway 89.
Kane and Garfield county leaders support the expansion. They consider the mine critical to the rural area's economic future. State leaders also support the mine, particularly as Utah's productive coal fields on the Wasatch Plateau and Book Cliffs become depleted.
Coal Hollow is just one of three federal coal leases currently in play, all connected with existing mines.
At auction on Wednesday, Bowie Resource Partners submitted the only bid on the 2,692-acre Flat Canyon coal tract a total of $17.2 million or $6,388.92 per acre. The bid, which translates into 41 cents per ton, still requires a review by a BLM panel to ensure it meets "fair market value" for the 42 million tons of recoverable coal.
This lease also requires annual rent of $3 an acre, plus an $8-a-ton royalty on all production. The Alton lease would pay $12 per ton for the coal that is strip mined.
BLM meanwhile has recently authorized the sale of another 56.6 million tons at the Greens Hollow tract in Sanpete County. The sale is necessary to ensure continuing operations at the Sufco mine, Utah's most productive coal mine. Bowie Resource Partners operates both the underground mines in the Wasatch Plateau.
WildEarth Guardians has blasted the sales, arguing the BLM should not help perpetuate the nation's reliance on coal, the fossil fuel that contributes the most heavily to climate change. The group also complains that Bowie intends to ship the coal overseas. That also appears to be the case with the Alton coal, which is of a lower quality than the low-sulphur bituminous product that comes out of Sufco.
According to the new EIS, Alton intends to develop a rail loadout on the Union Pacific line at Iron Springs, 11 miles west of Cedar City. The mine would truck the coal 110 miles through Panguitch and over the Tushar Mountains on State Route 20.
Alton general manager Larry Johnson did not respond to an email request for comment.
The supplemental EIS suggests surface mining may still be feasible, but only if the mine plan sticks to measures to protect sage grouse mating grounds and other "priority habitat."
A lease could be issued "if, after consultation with the state, the surface management agency [U.S. Forest Service] determines that all or certain stipulated methods of coal mining will not have a significant long-term impact on the species being protected," the review states.
But the Sierra Club, a vocal foe of the expansion and coal mining in general, has strong doubts.
"Putting a strip mine in the middle of habitat containing the southern-most sage grouse lek is totally incompatible with these birds continuing to live in the area," said club attorney Nathaniel Shoaff. "This population is non-migratory, and they have documented evidence in the existing mine where sage grouse remain in the strip mine.
"These birds have no place else to go," he added. "Even if reclamation works, which I think is a long shot, there is no guarantee these birds will come back."
Greater sage grouse is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. A listing decision is due this fall, and many fear that federal protection for the bird will stymie rural economic development in 11 Western states. Other sensitive wildlife species that live in the area around the mine include the prairie dog, burrowing owl, bald eagle, northern goshawk, ferruginous hawk, Bonneville cutthroat trout and pygmy rabbits.
But the Sierra Club and other environmental groups' concerns go way beyond wildlife.
"This is the wrong place for a coal mine for a multitude of reasons," Shoaff said. "You have this connection to Bryce, which has the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states.
And, he said, "you have a whole climate angle. The president is taking steps to combat climate disruption, while the BLM is considering open up a new area for coal mining."
But local leaders say they have more pressing concerns. The Alton expansion would boost mine employment to 100 for the 25 years it will take to mine the tract and support another 60 trucking jobs.
"We desperately need the jobs," said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock. "The town of Panguitch is supportive. There are a few vocal opponents, but the truck traffic is not a problem."
Rural Utah leaders believe coal mining would keep families in all corners of the state.
Enough families have left Garfield County that commissioners there expect to declare a "state of emergency" on Monday, Pollock said.
Declining school enrollment threatens the future of many communities and leaders blame the federal government's restrictive land management policies, particularly in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument home to Utah's largest coal deposit.
Since its creation in 1996, Escalante's school district population from seventh to 12th grade has dropped from 139 to 50, according to Pollock.
Alton Coal Mine meetings
The Bureau of Land Management will host a series of open houses next month on the proposed Alton coal sale. The meetings all run from 6 to 8 p.m. The agency's Kanab Field Office will accept written comments through Aug. 11. Email email@example.com.
July 14 Cedar City, Heritage Center, 105 N. 100 East
July 15 Panguitch, Garfield County Courthouse, 55 S. Main St.
July 16 Salt Lake City, Red Lion Hotel, 161 W. 600 South
July 21 Kanab, BLM field office, 669 S. Highway 89A
July 22 Alton, Town Hall, 11 S. 100 West