Green gambit: Enviro group's legal maneuver may kill coal mine

The Colowyo coal mine in northwestern Colorado avoided a shutdown, saving hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars for the local economy.

The Colowyo coal mine in northwestern Colorado avoided a shutdown, saving hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars for the local economy.

A Colorado coal mine is up against climate change and the clock, after an environmental group got a judge to order a federal agency to re-do the permit it issued eight years ago, setting such an "unrealistically" short deadline that backers fear the operation will be shut down for good on a technicality.

The Colowyo mine, which provides hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to the economy of the town of Craig, has been open since 1977. But the expansion permit it sought and received from the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) in 2007 did not take climate change into account, according to a lawsuit brought by WildEarth Guardians. That, the environmental group said, violated the 2006 National Environmental Policy Act. A federal judge agreed and, on May 4, gave the agency 120 days to redo the review.

"At the end of the day, it’s the families of northwestern Colorado that will be hurting."

- Lee Boughey, Colowyo Mine Co.

The company that owns the mine and many of the families of workers fear the agency won't complete the review in time, or, if it does, may reach a different conclusion. Either could mean the mine is shut down for good.

"It would devastate my family,” Colowyo employee Jim Hatfield told Steamboat Today. "We’d probably be forced to move.”

Christopher Holmes, spokesman for the federal agency, told the office intends to finish the process before the deadline, but completion does not guarantee the mine will stay open. The company that owns the mine, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, is appealing District Judge R. Brooke Jackson's order, even as it has asked for a stay of execution, claiming it will suffer irreparable harm if the mine closes because of an elapsed deadline.

“At the end of the day, it’s the families of northwestern Colorado that will be hurting," Lee Boughey, a spokesman for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, told “We are doing all we can to ensure that mining operations continue.”

Ironically, nearly all the coal covered by the invalidated permit has already been mined. But Colowyo, one of two coal mines that supplies the Craig Station power plant, which government regulators say generates 8 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, still has huge reserves.

Both of Colorado’s senators and Gov. John Hickenlooper urged Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whose office oversees OSM, to press for the deadline to be met. The two senators, in a letter sent to Jewell last month, said the agency must leave politics out of it.

“The federal government must vigorously defend the legality of its permitting actions, and leave policy debates over the role of coal to the legislative and rulemaking proceedings where those debates belong,” they wrote. 

The legal battle began in February 2013, when environmental WildEarth Guardians charged in a lawsuit that OSM's environmental assessment failed to take into account the effect of coal mining on air quality.

“The American public deserves an honest accounting of the environmental impacts of coal mining, including the climate impacts of burning coal, so we can be assured the right decisions are made,” WildEarth Guardians spokesman Jeremy Nichols told “The Interior Department has 120 days to do this analysis, which they were required to do in the first place under federal law, and there's no reason to believe they will not meet this deadline. It's unfortunate that the Interior Department's mistakes have created this situation, but thankfully, they're rising to the challenge.”

Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike King said closing the mine would create economic hardship in northwest Colorado. He said any mistake made in the case was by the federal agency, and criticized Jackson's deadline for a remedy.

“The court has provided an unrealistically short time frame to remedy a complicated ... process; threatening a mine shutdown on a federal permitting decision that has been in place for eight years and that Colowyo has been implementing during that time is an unacceptable result," he told “Given the importance of this mine to Craig and surrounding areas, we need to exhaust every avenue to ensure that the issues at hand can be addressed without the impacts to families and communities that would likely result from the short timeline in this ruling.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych