The environmental group WildEarth Guardians filed a complaint Thursday against a federal agency for failure to follow its own policies.
The complaint says the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement failed to regulate increased production and conduct a new environmental analysis at the King II coal mine in Hesperus.
“The unique thing about this situation is we’re talking about federal coal, so there’s an additional layer of oversight,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.
“They’re responsible for reviewing production increases to gauge if there’s a need for a modification. We’re asking them to enforce themselves.”
GCC Energy opened King II in 2007 as an extension of King I with access to about 1,300 acres of federal coal, with additional acreage holding privately and state-owned reserves.
But the mining plan issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior allowed for only 600,000 tons of coal to be extracted annually – about 200,000 tons less than the mine produced last year. This contradicts the maximum 1.3 million tons the state permits King II to extract yearly.
The complaint cites an email, included as an exhibit, indicating the decision that a mining plan modification wasn’t warranted came from a mining reclamation employee, yet only the regional director is authorized to make that call.
Furthermore, WildEarth Guardians questions the validity of the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental assessment, which is now 15 years old.
Citing violations of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, WildEarth Guardians is demanding that the federal agency conduct an inspection of the mine, consider civil penalties against GCC, order it to decrease production to 610,000 tons annually and seek a mining modification plan if the company wishes to extract more.
According to the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, King II produced 7,434 tons of coal the year mining began there. At its peak, in 2014, it produced 970,790.
Nichols emailed mining reclamation and enforcement officials in April, asking if GCC’s federal permit had been renewed since its initial 2007 issuance, and whether the federal agency determined GCC didn’t need a mining plan modification after the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety approved a production increase in 2014.
Marcelo Calle, manager of the field operations branch in Denver, replied that the permit renewal application was submitted correctly according to procedure and received no comments, but renewal was delayed in October 2014 due to “resource challenges at the time.”
The agency decided to hold off on a renewal decision until the BLM completes a leasing modification environmental assessment conducted with participation from the mining reclamation and enforcement office.
Calle directed questions for clarification to the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation and Enforcement public affairs office, which did not return a call.
WildEarth Guardians took similar action in February, which ended successfully. The group threatened to sue Peabody Energy on the grounds that the company had insufficient funds to clean up its mine sites in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.
WildEarth Guardians filed a complaint with the mining reclamation office, which agreed with the group and ordered the state of Colorado to require Peabody to post new bonds to ensure one of its mines in Steamboat Springs would be reclaimed if it closed.
The complaint over operations at King II comes as GCC Energy awaits a critical local land-use permit, which La Plata County commissioners will vote on May 31. Gina Nance, vice president of environment and energy at GCC, said the company is assessing the complaint and has no comment at this time.