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If a moratorium of new coal leases on federal lands continues, it will economically devastate rural Utah communities, eliminating hundreds of jobs and closing crucial mine sites, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by Kane and Garfield counties.
The two counties along with Rural Utah Alliance, a nonprofit focused on land ownership are suing the U.S. Department of the Interior and its secretary, Sally Jewell, as well as the Bureau of Land Management and its director, Neil Kornze. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, calls the moratorium "an act of unwarranted agency overkill."
"Although the filing in court speaks for itself," said Peter Stirba, who is representing the counties, "the coal moratorium is an arbitrary and capricious decision by the secretary, which should be vacated as ill-considered and contrary to law."
President Barack Obama's administration issued the moratorium in January while it conducts a review and potential overhaul of the coal program managed by the Department of the Interior. Pausing the leases, Jewell has said, is necessary to address climate change concerns and to examine whether American taxpayers receive a fair return. Conservationists hailed the decision while industry representatives condemned the moratorium as an overreach without much benefit.
The Salt Lake Tribune's requests for comment from the Department of the Interior and the BLM were not returned Wednesday evening.
The complaint argues that halting all leases especially those that are in the application process threatens the livelihood of rural counties where coal mining is a "major economic stimulus."
Coal Hollow Mine, which is the focus of the suit and sits in Kane County near the border of Garfield County, provides 52 jobs at the site and creates at least 100 others in trucking and related fields, the lawsuit states; putting a hold on leases would cripple expansion opportunities and potentially lead to the mine's closure.
"The moratorium will continue well into the foreseeable future," the complaint reads, "leaving the future of the coal industry and the continued economic viability of coal-dependent rural communities in doubt."
Alton Coal Development, the company that runs Coal Hollow Mine, also had a pending lease to expand operations onto a 640-acre federal tract of land. The moratorium temporarily stopped that action, which had been going on since at least 2006, when a public scoping period began. A supplemental draft environmental impact statement was filed in 2015 for the expansion, and the company expected to have it approved "soon."
Without moving forward with that lease application, Alton Coal Development says it "will be forced to close operations" because the private and federal lots already used by the mining company have effectively run their course.
The operation in Kane County, which began its application in 2004, started digging in 2011 with expectations of 2 million tons of coal and a three- to five-year lifespan. The expansion would extend business at the mine, the lawsuit says, as well as provide an "influx of money," estimated at about $27 million, to the small communities Kane County's population is about 7,150, and Garfield's is about 5,100.
The moratorium, in pausing that lease, has instead left the company "effectively wasting years of effort ... and huge amounts of financial resources" in the decadelong application and approval process, the lawsuit states. Had it been allowed to continue despite the order from Jewell, the counties allege, mine operations could have already "resulted in millions of dollars of return" instead of the past 11 months of "indefinite limbo."
The company applied for an emergency lease in May that was denied by the BLM three months later.
Though the nation is moving away from coal in favor of natural gas, coal burning was responsible for generating about 75 percent of the electricity across Utah in 2015, according to U.S. energy data. The lawsuit says the cost of electricity will skyrocket in the state if mines are forced to close. Abandoned operations, it says, would also pose a health and safety risk.
Coal operations across the country account for a national return of $1 billion to taxpayers each year and don't breach environmental standards, the lawsuit states. Before a lease is approved, an environmental study is conducted to ensure the safety of the dig, as well as to limit excess carbon dioxide emissions.
The lawsuit accuses Jewell of violating federal policy in issuing the moratorium, noting that she did not consider less extreme options. It alleges that Jewell "did not rely on any study, report or other factual findings" when issuing the order, and instead based it on five public meetings held in 2015. Additionally, the counties say, Jewell disregarded federal findings that show large overhauls are not recommended for the coal leasing program. She instead issued, they argue, an order with no expiration date that is only effective in stopping other pending litigation filed against the U.S.
The BLM, too, violated federal policy, the counties say, by enforcing Jewell's order. The U.S. also should have conducted a new environmental impact study before the moratorium to determine whether the order was necessary.
In addition to attorney fees and costs, the counties are asking for a decree from the court to reprimand the government for its actions.
Other mines in Utah potentially affected by the moratorium include Lila Canyon Mine in Carbon County and the SUFCO mine in Sanpete County, which also have pending development leases.