Lawmakers back coal mine, criticize Interior Department

Friday, July 10, 2015 1:46 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Several members of Colorado’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell this week expressing concerns surrounding the Colowyo Mine. Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit seeking to close the mine near Craig.

“The Colowyo Coal Mine is a significant contributor to the economies of Rio Blanco and Moffat counties, responsible for employing over 200 people with a payroll of around $20 million,” says the letter from U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, Cory Gardner, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez. “The detrimental effects of shutting down this mine go far beyond the jobs and livelihoods lost. The mine forms a critical part of western Colorado’s energy supply, providing reliable and affordable electricity in much of the western half of the state.”

WildEarth Guardians filed the lawsuit against the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, alleging that environmental impact assessments of the mine did not include its contribution to climate change and toxic air pollution.

The U.S. District Court hearing the case ruled that the office must produce a review that considers the concerns raised by environmentalists within 120 days or face closure.

The lawmakers’ letter expressed concern that Jewell had not appealed the court’s decision by Thursday’s deadline and asked that her office file an extension for completing the review before shutting down the mine.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs celebrated the Interior’s failure to act as a victory.

“The Interior Department is stepping up to lead on climate,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program director. “This is a milestone, and we sincerely praise the agency for its willingness to finally lead the charge to confront the climate impacts of coal mining.”

During the recent July recess, Tipton held a town hall in support of keeping the mine open. He’s consistently voted against federal air pollution regulations, including climate-warming carbon pollution. Bennet has consistently voted to defend such regulations.

Bill alarms environmentalists

Also on Thursday, the U.S. House passed the Resilient Federal Forests Act. The bill would bar citizens from filing lawsuits that challenge and delay implementation of forestry management decisions.

“I’m alarmed and confused as to why elected officials have an interest in minimizing the (National Environmental Policy Act) process as part of forest-related projects,” said Jimbo Buickerood, public lands coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance. “It’s only with the involvement of the full community that you get the best possible projects for all stakeholders.”

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, proposed an amendment to block the challenge to NEPA, but it failed.

The bill’s supporters say public comment can sufficiently be made through local Resource Advisory Committees, which would have to approve any forest management plans.

They say expediting management projects is necessary because of the urgency needed to deal with severe insect infestations. Scientists say bark beetles cause more intense wildfires and attribute to climate change. Mariam Baksh is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.