A number of conservation groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association, has asked the Utah Supreme Court to order a halt to work at a surface coal mine located roughly 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park as the raven flies.
The Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining late last month approved a permit for Alton Coal Development, LLC, to begin gouging into a seam of coal near the tiny hamlet of Alton located southwest of Bryce Canyon. The company hopes to mine upwards of 2 million tons of coal annually from the seam over the next 3-5 years. At the same time, it is pursuing leases to tens of millions of tons of coal on an adjacent 3,600 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property, leases that would greatly extend the mine's operations.
Late Wednesday afternoon a "petition for emergency review" was filed with the state Supreme Court by the NPCA, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In that document the groups maintain that the board cleared the way for mining despite the fact that the company had failed to describe how it would monitor hydrological impacts created by the mining.
"(T)here simply is no description of how monitoring data will be used to implement ADC's (Alton Coal Development) operations plan," the petition states. "Consequently, the ability of the division or the public to determine damage to the hydrologic balance as a result of ACD's mining is uncertain, and disagreements concerning the use of monitoring data may forestall or undercut efforts to address hydrologic damage."
Additionally, the petition argues that the division failed to take into consideration adverse impacts the mining might bring to Panguitch, a nearby town listed on the National Register of Historic Places and through which 300 coal trucks a day might be traveling once full production gets under way.
The coal company also failed to obtain clearances from the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) that the mining would not impact the town, the petition continues. It also points out that SHPO officials "believed that the impacts to Panguitch needed to be addressed before the division approved the state permit."
While the mine site cannot be seen from Bryce Canyon, and though the coal trucks will not pass by the park, the groups and even National Park Service officials are concerned about how dust kicked up from the mining and bright lighting used to facilitate night-time operations might impact the incredibly dark skies over the park that lure many visitors for astronomy programs.
The mine is located near Alton, just off U.S. 89, a scenic byway that vacationers travel between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon. One of the concerns opponents have is how upwards of 300 tandem coal trucks a day -- traveling 24 hours a day, six days a week -- would impact travel on that road.
Vacationers coming south along Interstate 15 also would travel part of the same route the coal trucks are expected to run. Only visitors coming to Bryce Canyon from the east via Utah Highway 12 would not encounter the trucks.
"The board's ruling needlessly puts one of Utah's treasured landscapes, Bryce National Park, at risk,” said Karen Hevel-Mingo, the program coordinator in NPCA's Southwest office, based in Salt Lake City. “Thousands of visitors come to Bryce each year to marvel at the pristine night skies and beautiful vistas. Bryce National Park is also an important contributor to local economies."