SALT LAKE CITY — A coal company claimed victory Tuesday when a Utah state board rejected a legal challenge brought by environmental groups that say a proposed strip mine will pollute waterways and kick up dust at Bryce Canyon National Park.
The Utah Board of Oil, Gas & Mining said Alton Coal Development LLC could strip 440 acres of private lands, the start of a project that could take in thousands of acres of surrounding national forest in southern Utah. Alton is seeking federal approval to enlarge the project.
The state board upheld an October decision by regulators at the Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, which insisted it followed all legal and technical requirements in approving the mine. The regulators' approval came after the developer donated $10,000 to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's campaign and complained the state was taking too long to approve the project.
"We are extremely gratified that the board sided with us on this issue," John Baza, director of the Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, said Tuesday. "The decision validates the months of scientific analysis put in by the team members assigned to this permit."
Four environmental groups hired scientists to challenge the state's approval in a half-dozen days of hearings from January to June. The superintendent of Bryce Canyon National Park – known for its views, pristine air and sparkling night skies – also has objected.
Alton's project manager, Chris McCourt, said in a rare public statement by the company that the board's decision "will allow development to proceed in an environmentally responsible manner."
"Alton commends the state of Utah, the division and the volunteer board for their diligence and evenhanded consideration. Approval of the permit is key to the Coal Hollow Project, which will provide new jobs and economic expansion to the state of Utah," McCourt said.
The company, a group of investors led by James J. Wayland, of Naples, Fla., must secure a multimillion-dollar reclamation bond before it can start mining.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance had promised to take the case to state courts, if necessary, keeping the project tied up. Steve Bloch, a staff lawyer for the group, said Tuesday he was studying the 29-page decision before making a decision on further appeals.
"There is no denying, however, that this is bad news for the air, water and dark night skies at Bryce Canyon National Park and surrounding communities," he said.
The decision threatens "one of the crown jewels of the National Park system, as well as local economies and the air and water quality in southern Utah," said Clair Jones of the Utah Sierra Club. "The Alton Coal strip mine would devastate local economies in order to mine an unsustainable, dirty fuel source that will contaminate Utah's water and air resources."
There was no immediate reaction from the National Resources Defense Council and the National Park Conservation Association, which also opposed the project.
Bobbi Bryant, owner of the gift and coffee shop Bronco Bobbi's, said she is opposed to the strip mine because the operation would send coal trucks as often as 300 times a day through Panguitch near the park.
"The noise and fumes from the trucks will make traveling to Bryce Canyon less pleasurable and much more dangerous. Most shop, restaurant and motels owners, myself included, will not get as many customers, and we could be faced with closing our business," she said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told Alton Coal last February to wait for it to complete a possible independent analysis of wetlands impacts. The Corps said a federal permit could be necessary, and it warned the company not to start without one.
Jason Gipson, chief of the Corps' Nevada-Utah Regulatory Branch, said Tuesday it was still evaluating the project. Gipson said his staff would decide whether an intermittent creek, wet meadows and seeps on the private land Alton wants to mine constitute wetlands subject to federal regulation.
Alton appeared to get fast-track approval after complaining in a meeting with Herbert that regulators were taking too long to make their decision. The company opened its application for a permit in 2005.
A company representative sat down with Herbert Sept. 17, 2009, the same day the governor's campaign was depositing a $10,000 contribution from the coal company.
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 left to make a decision but agreed to wrap things up within two months. Her superiors have since insisted Burton was mistaken about the timeframe.