A lawsuit was filed Tuesday by conservation groups calling for GCC Energy’s King II coal mine to comply with a stricter water protection rule, a move the groups say will lead to the closure of the mine in western La Plata County.
GCC Energy has operated the coal mine near Hesperus since 2007, but in preparation for its coal reserves to run out, it asked the Bureau of Land Management in 2018 for an expansion of its underground workings that would extend the life of the mine for 20 years.
The BLM granted the expansion in June 2020, but it doesn’t become official until the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement signs off, which is pending.
If the expansion is ultimately approved, the King II mine, southwest of Durango, would increase by 2,462 acres, essentially doubling the underground workings of the mine and opening access to an additional 9.5 million tons of coal.
The lawsuit, however, filed against the U.S. government and Department of Interior, calls for the expansion process to stop until GCC Energy more intensively looks at its impact on water quality in the region. Ultimately, the groups believe the analysis will show the mine cannot operate safely.
The lawsuit was filed by two nonprofits: Southwest Advocates, a group of residents who live near the mine, and the Citizens for Constitutional Integrity.
Jared Pettinato, an attorney representing the groups, said Congress in 2017 used an unconstitutional means to roll back the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule, which GCC Energy should now abide by.
The rule sought to address coal mining’s impact on water by enacting stricter regulations, such as requiring increased water-quality monitoring and conducting more thorough baseline assessments of potential impacts to the ecosystem.
The rule, however, was opposed by mining companies and incoming President Donald Trump, who vowed to revive the industry. In February 2017, the Republican-held Congress used the Congressional Review Act to repeal it.
Pettinato said King II puts residents’ nearby wells at risk because the mine sprays water onto the coal face, which mixes the water with toxic mining chemicals and then seeps into the groundwater.
And he said the groups believe GCC Energy is taking more water than it is allotted, exacerbating issues on the La Plata River, an already over-allocated, low-flow stream.
“Every drop of water is important,” he said. “If they had applied that new rule, it would have required a more intense analysis for monitoring pollutants.”
Indeed, the issue over water as it pertains to the King II mine was a recurring concern during the expansion process the past few years.
The King II coal mine is located in western La Plata County, where available water is scarce. The main waterway, the La Plata River, is a relatively low-flow stream, and most residents rely on spotty groundwater aquifers.
GCC Energy uses a substantial amount of water, about 60 acre-feet a year (about 30 Olympic pools), leased from local rancher Dan Huntington, which is then stored in a reservoir on-site.
GCC Energy maintains groundwater wells for monitoring, but La Plata County officials say there hasn’t been a comprehensive study on potential impacts to the La Plata River.
La Plata County commissioners in 2019 sent a letter to the BLM urging more attention to water issues, with commissioners calling for a robust study on how mine operations may affect adjacent wells or runoff into the La Plata River.
“When it comes to the doubling of an existing mine ... I think we want to have a much better understanding of the impacts ... on the hydrology system,” Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said at the time.
Cynthia Roebuck, executive director of Southwest Advocates, said the group has more than 20 members who live in the area and have concerns with the King II mine.
“They are not just residents on County Road 120 (where the mine is located), they are people who live in that area and are affected by the La Plata River watershed,” Roebuck said.
The long-term impacts to the La Plata River watershed from GCC Energy’s expansion needs to be evaluated, Roebuck said, especially as the mine opens new veins and potentially alters groundwater flows.
“It’s never been done,” she said of a comprehensive study. “This (the lawsuit) was another way to try to ... get someone to stop and really look at the environmental impacts of the mine.”
A spokesman with BLM said the agency does not comment on active litigation.
At public hearings in 2019, BLM staff members said King II’s impact on water quality is minimal because the mine is above the water table and has little interaction with groundwater.
At the time the BLM approved the expansion, the agency said it analyzed the potential impacts in an environmental assessment and determined a “finding of no significant impact,” which means a larger analysis was not required.
A spokeswoman with GCC Energy said the company had no comment because it is not a defendant in the lawsuit.
“GCC Energy remains committed to being a good neighbor and business leader in La Plata County,” she said.
GCC Energy officials have said in the past most of the water it purchases from Huntington is used for dust control and does not leave the site.
Most of the coal extracted at King II goes to GCC Energy’s parent company – Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, a multimillion-dollar international cement manufacturer based in Chihuahua, Mexico – for use in cement production.
Since the company took over the King II mine, it has produced an average of about 700,000 tons of coal per year.
Pettinato said the conservation groups want GCC Energy to go back and analyze its impact to water quality under the more protective rule before any expansion is granted. He said it’s likely a more thorough analysis will show a more serious impact, and likely lead to the closure of the mine.
The conservation groups’ lawsuit also seeks to reinstate 14 other protections for the environment, labor, education, privacy, consumers, and public health and safety, Pettinato said.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court and was assigned to Judge Marcia S. Krieger.