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RBC I The U.S. Department of the Interior has approved and signed a modified mine plan for Colowyo Mine, which was subject to a federal district court order requiring the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) to update its environmental review of the mine.
In addition to the new mining plan, on Aug. 31, the OSM completed a new environmental assessment for the mine, resulting in a finding of no significant impact on the environment from mining operations.
The approval of the new mine plan completes the effort by OSM to comply with the court’s May 8 order to complete the environmental review within 120 days. OSM’s counsel has notified the court that it has completed the environmental review and approved a modified mining plan.
“We are grateful to the staff at the Office of Surface Mining and the other cooperating agencies for their diligence and hard work to complete the environmental review within the short time frame ordered by the judge,” said Mike McInnes, chief executive officer of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which owns Colowyo Mine through its subsidiary, Colowyo Coal Co.
“The unwavering support we have received from our 220 mine employees, the community and elected officials across Colorado helped ensure the Department of the Interior, from Secretary Jewell down, committed the resources and time necessary to complete this important work,” McInnes said.
Colowyo Coal Co. believes the new mine plan allows the mine to continue to operate and the completion of the environmental assessment, finding of no significant impact and mine plan will satisfy the court, but it is uncertain how the court will proceed.
“The approval of the new plan should provide our employees and the residents of Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties with the confidence to move forward and focus on the future,” said Chris McCourt, Colowyo Mine’s manager.
“This action came at a time that the loss of even one job has a negative effect on the economies of Rio Blanco and Moffat counties,” he said. “If the mine had been shut down it would have been a disaster.
“It is my understanding that the court will have to take another look at the permit,” McCourt said. “Let us hope that the judge will see that the Office of Surface Management did their due diligence.
Colowyo Coal Co. is owned by Tri-State, which purchased the Colowyo Mine in 2011. Tri-State is a not-for-profit wholesale power supplier to 44 electric cooperatives and public power districts that serve 1.5 million members throughout 200,000 square-miles of Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.
“I would like to thank and give a pat on the back to the Office of Surface Mining and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell for re-writing Colowyo’s permit on time,” Rio Blanco County Commissioner Jon Hill said. “Too many times federal agencies have not met court-imposed deadlines and this one was particularly unreasonable.
“This proves that a concentrated grassroots effort can pay off,” he said. “Thanks also to Gov. John Hickenlooper; enlisting his help made a difference in attitude from the bureau.
“One more time, two counties were held hostage by a group of outsiders that have no stake in the outcome,” Hill said. “If (WildEarth Guardians) lose, they can just shrug their shoulders and try something else. If they win, we pay the price in the expense of fighting them and, to add insult to injury, our tax money is used to pay their lawyer fees.
“I have a goal of getting Congress to rescind the Equal Access to Justice Act,” he said. “If these organizations had to start filing suit with their own money maybe they would only file when there was an actual benefit to the environment.”
Commissioner Shawn Bolton was short and to the point, saying “I am cautiously optimistic” about the judge’s acceptance of the ruling.
Commissioner Jeff Eskelson said, “I personally met with Gov. Hickenlooper, Sen. Gardner, Rep. Tipton and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, all pertaining to the Colowyo permit issue. I also spoke directly to the miners in an audience of about 1,000 in Craig along with Tri- State and most of the miners on this issue.
“WildEarth Guardians is a deplorable group,” he said. “That they can sue the federal governement, win and get paid by tax dollars infuriates me.
“I am skittish on celebrating until we hear from the federal court; my trust there is not huge,” Eskelson said. “The main thing is that I want the constituents to know that we and the other layers of elected officials worked our butts off for the miners on this issue.”
Background on Colowyo Mine
Located in northwest Colorado, the Colowyo Mine produces more than 2 million tons of low-sulfur, sub-bituminous coal annually and is currently one of two primary fuel sources for the Craig Station power plant near Craig.
Colowyo Mine operates in full compliance with all federal and state environmental requirements and has been recognized with numerous awards for its environmental and reclamation efforts and successes.
In 2013, the mine contributed an estimated $206.7 million in direct and indirect economic impact to the region and generated public revenues in an estimated amount of $12.0 million (federal and state royalties, severance tax, sales tax, property tax, etc.).
Background on case decision
In February 2013, WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Office of Surface Mining in the Federal District Court, claiming that the agency failed to adequately provide public notice and address environmental impacts prior to mine plan approvals for seven coal mines in the Western U.S., including Colowyo.
Specifically, WildEarth claimed the Environmental Assessment that OSM prepared to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act for the Colowyo mine plan was inadequate and asked the court to strike down the current mine plan. Tri-State joined the lawsuit to assist the defense.
WildEarth’s lawsuit against the OSM was not based on a violation of any air or water quality laws or regulations. Tri-State claims the Colowyo Mine has responsibly operated its mining and reclamation activities since the mine plan was approved under the federal review process and that the mine remains in compliance with all state and federal requirements.
The issues raised in the lawsuit are related to whether OSM completed appropriate public notification and analysis required during a review of the mine plan issued in 2007. At no time during the case did WildEarth argue that the mine should be designed or operated any differently than it operates today.
Judge R. Brooke Jackson heard oral arguments on April 24, and on May 8 ruled against OSM.
In his ruling, Judge Jackson agreed with WildEarth’s claims that OSM did not involve the public or take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of mining operations when the agency approved the Colowyo mining plan.
Recognizing the potential effect of the decision on Colowyo Mine, its employees and the northwest Colorado community, the judge delayed vacating Colowyo’s mining permit for 120 days to allow the OSM to address the deficiencies in the permitting process that he discussed in the order.
During this time, Colowyo continued to operate.
Colowyo Coal Co. believes the original court decision against OSM was in error and is appealing that decision.