ST. GEORGE — The Bureau of Land Management has approved a lease of sale for more than 2,000 acres of land for a massive coal mine expansion near the town of Alton. The plan has been criticized by conservation groups who say the mining operation will negatively impact wildlife and visitors at nearby Bryce Canyon National Park.
The BLM released its “record of decision” Thursday approving the competitive lease sale of approximately 2,114 acres, which the agency says could produce an estimated 30.8 million tons of coal for lease applicant Alton Coal.
According to the BLM, the expansion has the potential to create over 100 new jobs at the mine and indirectly increase employment by 240 to 480 jobs in rural Southern Utah counties, including fuel providers and positions in maintenance, grocery stores and retail stores.
In a news release from the BLM, Utah Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch both praised the decision.
“This action not only advances the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda, it will also provide stability to local economies in Kane and Garfield Counties,” Lee said.
Hatch said the decision comes after “more than a decade of rigorous environmental studies” and commended Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
“Alton Coal has proven that responsible development and environmental stewardship can meaningfully coincide,” Hatch said in the release. “Secretary Zinke inherited a challenge, and I applaud him for finding a way to strike a balance that will bring much-needed jobs to Utah’s rural counties.”
The BLM says protective stipulations will be incorporated in the lease in order to minimize or eliminate the coal mine’s effects on wildlife, air, water, recreation and other issues of concern.
However, the premise that the mine expansion can go forward without heavily impacting the environment and recreation is disputed by multiple conservation groups.
The area of the mine expansion is only 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, which will likely negatively impact the experiences of visitors at the park, Dave Nimkin, director of the southwest region of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a previous St. George News report.
“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,” Nimkin said.
According to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, mining operations could destroy breeding grounds relied on by Greater Sage Grouse populations. The group says the Trump Administration didn’t consider the impact on wildlife or recreation and ignored over 280,000 public comments filed in opposition of the lease expansion.
A joint statement released by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club reads as follows:
The Trump Administration has repeatedly put corporate interests ahead of the American people in issues of public land management, so this is a disappointment but certainly not a surprise. Our organizations remain strongly committed to protecting the climate and the landscape, environment and cultural resources in southern Utah. Some places are simply too special to mine—this is one of them. The doorstep to Bryce Canyon National Park should be preserved for the benefit of all visitors, rather than turned over to the highest corporate bidder.
In the BLM’s news release, Brian Steed, the agency’s deputy director for policy and programs, said the public’s concerns were addressed, and the ultimate decision to offer up the land for lease was achieved “cooperatively.”
“This responsible energy project achieves the Secretary’s goal of being a good neighbor to local communities,” Steed said. “The BLM has worked diligently to address public comments while collaborating closely with the state of Utah and other federal agencies to complete the analysis and review.”
St. George News reporter Spencer Ricks contributed to this report.
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