A year after Utah's only coal strip mine opened near Bryce Canyon National Park, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is considering a proposal to greatly expand the operation to more than 3,500 acres.
The release earlier this month of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement laying out the proposal quickly drew reaction from environmental and conservation groups concerned about how it might impact the national park.
One group organized an on-line petition drive opposing the expansion. As of Friday afternoon, it had been signed by more than 21,000 individuals.
Tourism is a $6.2 billion industry in Utah, and the state’s five national parks are a prime driver. From 2009 through 2010 visits to the national parks rose to more than 6 million, and another 4.8 million visited the seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and one national historic site, according to the Utah Office of Tourism.
Coal mining, comparatively, had a direct financial impact of $196 million in 2007, the year with the most detailed information, according to the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.
But the state does have some rich coal reserves that attract interest from mining companies. Since at least 1965 companies have been eyeing the coal reserves in the Alton coal field of southern Utah. Late last year Alton Coal Development, LLC, and its partner, Kane Mining, began to chew into those reserves with their Coal Hollow Mine.
The companies had a permit from the state of Utah to haul away upwards of 2 million tons a year from a 635-acre private reserve located just 3 miles from sleepy Alton, less than 10 miles from the national park and its geologic wonders, and about 5 miles from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Though the life of the operation was estimated at just three years, the companies now are vying for a 25-year lease that would give them a total of 3,576 acres with estimated recoverable coal reserves of 44.9–49.1 million tons. Operations could involve both strip mining and deep mining, according to the BLM.
An expanded operation could bring significant impacts to the region, according to the agency's Draft Environmental Impact Statement:
* The proposed expansion would lead to "increased ambient noise levels, short-term modifications to visual resources, and perceptible increase in nighttime skyglow."
* More air pollutants -- particulate matter (PM)10, PM25, nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide (CO), and sulfur dioxide [SO2]) and hazardous air pollutants (HAP) (benzene, toluene, xylenes, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acrolein -- also would be produced. But the BLM states they would be within National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
* As for cultural resource impacts, the DEIS states that, "(A)rchaeological sites eligible for the National Register would be adversely impacted from the implementation of either action alternative due to surface-disturbing activities associated with mining operations.
"Underground mining may impact unidentified archaeological sites. Native American traditionally cultural properties would be subject to adverse effects for the life of the mine under either action alternative," the narrative continues. "The Panguitch Historic District and Utah Heritage Highway 89/Mormon Pioneer Heritage Area (US-89) would be subject to adverse effects for the life of the mine under either action alternative."
* Fossil resources also would be lost, according to the document: "It is anticipated that a large number of significant fossils would be destroyed or removed from context..."
Not insignificantly, the operation would have an impact on tourism and public health and safety in the region.
"There would be an adverse impact to recreation, and adverse impacts to sense of community, social well-being, and tourism-related businesses," the DEIS says. "There would be impacts to population, housing, public health, safety, and environmental justice populations."
As for dark night skies, a hallmark of Bryce Canyon, impacts from night operations at the mine would be slight, according to the DEIS.
"The study conducted by Dark Sky Partners concluded that the predicted skyglow visible from Yovimpa Point in Bryce Canyon National Park would be less than that produced by several small towns in the general area," it said. "The study also concluded that the predicted skyglow visible from Brian Head Peak outside of Cedar Breaks National Monument would be much less than skyglow arising from St. George and Cedar City, Utah."
Kevin Poe, a "dark sky" ranger at Bryce Canyon, produced the following 37-minute video that explores how emissions from coal-fired power plants can impact the park's famous hoodoos.
BLM officials are planning a number of meetings in Utah to take comment on the DEIS. The first is scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Festival Hall Convention Center, 96 North Main, in Cedar City.