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Utah's First Strip Mine Faces Environmental Hurdles Due To Bryce Canyon National Park Proximity

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The Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and two other groups are challenging the state's approval for the strip mine in an administrative trial that opened Thursday.

Hearings will resume Friday and continue May 20-21. A decision by the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining is expected to take months longer.

"They don't want a surface mine, but state law allows it," said Bennett E. Bayer, a Kentucky mining lawyer representing Naples, Fla.-based Alton Coal Development LLC.

Dan Dean, deputy director of Utah's mining agency, testified Thursday that regulators judged the strip mine no differently than any other coal operation. "This was not an arbitrary decision," she said.

Alton Coal Development got fast-track approval after complaining in a meeting with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert that regulators were taking too long to make a decision.

A company representative sat down with Herbert Sept. 17, the same day the governor's campaign was depositing a $10,000 contribution from the coal company. Critics assert the donation influenced the Herbert administration's decision, but the governor's office has said he never ordered regulators to give their approval and wasn't aware of the donation.

A 33-page memo from the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining said the result of the coal company's September meeting with the Republican governor was to fast-track a decision by regulators. Priscilla Burton, a chief environmental scientist for the agency who wrote the memo, noted regulators had a full year to make a decision and agreed to wrap things up Oct. 15. Approval came four days later.

Alton opened an application for a permit in 2005 and went through a grueling analysis to win approval, Bayer said.

"This application was years long in review and cost millions of dollars," he told The Associated Press during a break in Thursday's hearing.

The company got approval to work a 635-acre parcel of private land, or about 1 square mile, near the tiny Kane County town of Alton, about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City. Bayer clarified Thursday that the strip mine would dig into 440 of the 635 acres to remove a 20-foot seam of coal.

Alton is seeking federal approval to enlarge the strip mine onto thousands of acres of surrounding public lands where the coal seam continues.

The company has yet to secure a multimillion-dollar reclamation bond to start work on the private land.

Under questioning Thursday from lawyers for the environmental groups, Dean acknowledged regulators didn't try to verify any of the scientific studies submitted by certified labs on the strip mine's groundwater impacts.

Regulators simply take lab results and dump them into a database for analysis, she said.

But Dean testified regulators can challenge any lab results if they have reason to suspect something amiss, and can demand to see full lab reports or field notes, although state law doesn't require them to collect that information.