Threats of another lawsuit looms over Colowyo after expansion OK’d

The Colowyo Mine, at the heart of a climate-change motivated lawsuit between the environmental group WildEarth Guardians and the U.S. Department of the Interior, will continue to mine coal at its Meeker facility.

But environmentalists are still looking for a way to shut the operations down.

Owners of the mine were notified last Friday that the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement completed a 120-day environmental assessment of the mine’s plans and found the expansion would have no significant environmental impact. The lack of environmental impact also means the agency will not have to write a more substantial environmental impact statement.

The 120-day review was ordered by U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson last May.

WildEarth Guardians sued the Office of Surface Mining in 2013, claiming the agency had illegally approved permits in 2007 and 2009 that allowed expansion of Colowyo and a neighboring mine, Trapper, near Craig.

Both mines provide millions of tons of coal to Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s Craig power plant. Under the expansion, the Colowyo mine could extract 23 million tons of coal from federal lands through 2019. The Meeker mine employs 220 workers.

Jackson ruled in May that the agency didn’t follow federal environmental rules on public comment, and that it didn’t take a required “hard look” at potential environmental impacts.

The judge gave the agency 120 days, starting May 8, to conduct an environmental assessment of the mining plans. The agency also conducted several public meetings in northwestern Colorado in June that drew hundreds of attendees.

The court order did not halt mining at either facility.

The environmental assessment for Colowyo was completed on August 31, according to Office of Surface Mining documents filed September 4 with the court. The Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management approved the mining plan on September 2.

In a statement issued last Friday, Tri-State said they believe the environmental assessment and approved mine plan should satisfy the court requirements. Tri-State CEO Mike McInnes said the company is “grateful to the staff at the Office of Surface Mining and the other cooperating agencies for their diligence and hard work to complete the environmental review within the short timeframe ordered by the judge.”

The Colorado Mining Association also weighed in. The decision “only confirms what we knew all along, that the Colowyo Mine is a state of the art, world class, environmentally and socially responsible operator producing clean coal which provides affordable and reliable power to meet the state and the nation’s growing need for electricity. “

After the May 8 court ruling, Gov. John Hickenlooper got into the fray, calling on Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to do everything possible to keep the mine open and save its 220 jobs.

Friday, the governor said he appreciated the Department of the Interior and Office of Surface Mining’s quick work.

“This effort was of enormous importance to northwestern Colorado, particularly Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, and protects jobs and families, as well as an important source of tax revenues, in the region. Secretary Jewell and her agency are to be commended for listening to the community, understanding the stakes and responding aggressively to the situation.”

Left unresolved, however, is how the court will handle the Trapper Mine. Jackson did not order a similar assessment of its environmental impact, stating in his May 8 ruling that almost all of the federal coal at Trapper had already been mined. But it turns out that this isn’t true. Trapper notified the court in June that mining operations are still in progress.

Attorney Paul Seby, who represents Trapper, told The Colorado Independent that discussions are ongoing among his client, WildEarth Guardians and the Office of Surface Mining on the kind of assessment that ought to be done for Trapper and the timing of that assessment.

Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians noted Monday that the analysis by the Office of Surface Mining shows that 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide will be produced by the mining operations and burning of Colowyo coal, and he questioned whether 120 days was enough time to do a reasonable review.

“We see a lot of room for improvement” in an analysis that claims this is an insignificant impact, Nichols told The Independent.

WildEarth hasn’t decided on whether to file another lawsuit over the analysis. But he pointed out that the lawsuit was over the failure by the Interior to do anything, and said it did raise the bar for forcing the agency to do its job.

The agency should stop “rubberstamping” these permits, he said.

“They finally did something” as a result of the lawsuit, and the next step, if the agency’s work was inadequate, is what to do next.

“We have an imperative,” Nichols said, “getting Interior to get in line with the nation’s climate progress.”

Photo credit: Sicko Atze van Dijk, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.