ST. GEORGE — Thousands of acres of land near Bryce Canyon National Park could soon be part of a massive coal mine expansion, but environmental groups are continuing to fight against it.
Alton Coal Development’s plan to expand its tract in Kane County could increase the coal mine by 3,581 acres, which includes 2,305 acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
The expansion also supports the Trump administration’s “priorities of energy independence and being a good neighbor to local communities,” according to a press release from the BLM.
“Alton Coal is an economic engine that provides good paying jobs that benefit the entire region,” U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said. “I’m grateful for Secretary (of the Interior Ryan) Zinke’s leadership and vision for making domestic energy production a priority again.”
In the BLM’s final environmental impact statement for the Alton Coal tract expansion, which was released earlier this month, the agency pointed to job growth and economic improvement as positive impacts of the possible expansion. It could add 100 new jobs for mine workers, as well as 240-480 jobs that could be created indirectly at grocery stores, retail stores and fuel providers in the area.
“Alton Coal provides family sustaining wage jobs that are needed in our county and has provided some 30 jobs to date with the ability to expand as well as the additional indirect trucking jobs,” Kane County Commissioner Dirk Clayson said. “This plays a vital role in our economy.”
If the coal mine is expanded to the size requested by Alton Coal, nearly 45 million tons of coal could be extracted from the land. However, the BLM’s preferred alternative would reduce the amount of extractable coal to just over 30 million tons.
While expanding the mine may add jobs to the region, environmentalists argue expanding the mine would negatively impact the experience for visitors at Bryce Canyon National Park, which lies less than ten miles away from the mine expansion proposal.
“A lot of the values of Bryce that include the night skies, air quality, visibility, the sounds and the sense of being in a special place where there are not huge numbers of coal trucks and industrialization nearby are very important,” said Dave Nimkin, director of the southwest region of the National Parks Conservation Association.
The BLM’s environmental impact study concluded that the amount of light from the expanded coal mine at night would be nearly negligible, but Nimkin said any light at night would impact the night sky over Bryce Canyon. The famous dark skies over Bryce Canyon allow visitors to see 7,500 stars on a moonless night, according to the National Park Service.
“Every effort needs to be made to reduce light pollution over Bryce Canyon,” Nimkin said.
He said the large number of jobs that could come from the mine shouldn’t be minimized, but if the coal mine impacts Bryce Canyon National Park, it could hurt the “expansive number of jobs” that is currently provided through the National Park Service or through the tourism industry.
Another concern Nimkin has about the coal mine expansion is whether there will be enough demand in Utah or the United States for the coal produced from the mine as renewable energy sources continue to decrease the need for coal.
“I’m not an economist, so we can’t speculate about what the future market is for the amount of coal that will be mined out of this site, but I’m really wondering if the local or domestic market for coal can absorb all of that and if it can be profitable to export it to Asia. Do we really need to be impacting one of these incredible natural resources for not domestic use of coal but for export to international markets?”
The decision to expand the coal mine now rests with officials from the BLM, who will issue a decision in no less then 30 days from Friday. There are several alternatives listed within the environmental impact study, including not accepting the mine expansion application or reducing the size of the mine expansion.
Meanwhile, environmental groups like the National Parks Conservation Association and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance will continue to express their concerns about the expansion.
“We have about a million-and-a-half supporters and members from across the country who regard Bryce Canyon as a natural wonder and they entrust us to work with them and work on their behalf to protect these places and these basic intrinsic values that are so important,” Nimkin said. “We take that responsibility very seriously.”
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