Judge Voids Coal Mine Expansion Permit on Navajo Tribal Land

DENVER, Colorado, November 1, 2010 (ENS) – A federal judge has voided a permit for the expansion of one of two operating coal mines on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and ordered the federal government to review potential effects of the proposed expansion on cultural resources and the environment.

In a ruling handed down Friday, Judge John Kane of U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ordered the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to reassess a 2005 permit granted for the expansion after an environmental assessment found “no significant impact.”

The Navajo Mine, an open pit mine located in located in Fruitland, New Mexico, is operated by the Australian firm BHP Billiton. It supplies coal to the Four Corners Power Plant, also located on the Navajo Nation near Farmington.

Judge Kane’s decision came in a lawsuit filed by two conservation groups, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment.

Extracting coal at the Navajo Mine circa 1973 (Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives)

The two groups sued the federal government in July 2007, claiming that the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act when renewing the mine’s permit in 2004 and approving a revised permit for the expansion in 2005. They claimed failure to provide adequate public notice and failure to fully analyze the impacts of expanded operations at the Navajo Mine.

In his ruling Judge Kane agreed with the plaintiff groups’ claim that the Office of Surface Mining failed to comply with NEPA requirements

To ensure public participation in decisions regarding the mine permit, the judge ordered “meaningful public notice,” of public hearings, including radio ads in both English and Navajo.

Lori Goodman of the Navajo group Dine CARE told the Associated Press that she is grateful that the judge is making the Office of Surface Mining review the permit.

“This mine expansion would have a huge impact on many people, on our water, our health and our way of life,” she said.

All of the mine’s discharge outfalls are to receiving waters located on the Navajo Nation tribal lands. Coal combustion byproducts generated at Arizona Public Service Company Four Corners electric power plant are transported back to the mine and backfilled into the coal pit.

BHP Billiton spokesman Pat Risner says that the company is reviewing the ruling and has temporarily suspended operations in the section of the mine governed by the permit.

Christopher Holmes, a spokesman for the federal Office of Surface Mining, said the agency’s legal staff is reviewing the decision.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the power plant supplied by the Navajo Mine is the nation’s largest source of nitrogen oxide emissions. The privately owned Four Corners Power Plant operated by Arizona Public Service Co. is in the Four Corners region where the state lines of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet.

One of the largest coal-fired generating stations in the United States, the plant provides power to about 300,000 households in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas.

On October 6, EPA proposed to require the Four Corners Power Plant to reduce NoX emissions by 80 percent “to achieve cleaner, healthier air while improving the visibility at sixteen of our most pristine national parks and wilderness areas.”

EPA’s proposal can be achieved by installing and operating selective catalytic reduction on all five units at the power plant.

EPA is also proposing a particulate emission limit for the three smaller units that will require additional controls for fine particles that may help reduce the visible secondary plume that often emanates from these three units.

EPA is requesting comment on the proposed action in a comment period that ends December 20, 2010. EPA will be holding two public hearings in the Four Corners area. Additional details for the public hearings will be provided in a separate notice at least 30 days prior to the hearings.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

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