Environmentalists challenging some of West's largest coal mines

COLLEEN SLEVIN, Associated Press

An environmental group is expanding its legal campaign to try stop coal mining because of climate change by challenging permits for some of the largest mines in the West.

DENVER (AP) — Boosted by a recent victory in Colorado, an environmental group is expanding its legal campaign to try stop coal mining because of climate change by challenging permits for some of the largest mines in the West.

This time, New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians is asking that a federal judge block mining at the Antelope Mine and Black Thunder mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the El Segundo Mine in New Mexico and the Bowie No. 2 Mine in Colorado.

But it's taking the argument further. Rather than just saying that federal regulators should take the climate change impacts of individual mines into account before approving permits, the group claims that they should be looking at the cumulative effect of mining as a whole and whether the nation should allow any more.

In May, WildEarth Guardians persuaded a Denver federal judge to order a new environmental review for the Colowyo mine in northwestern Colorado in part because Judge R. Brooke Jackson thought regulators essentially rubber stamped its permit rather than taking a serious look at the environmental impacts under federal law, including the effect burning the mined coal would have on greenhouse gases. While that mine supplied coal to a nearby power plant, the mines targeted now are owned by some of the biggest players in the struggling coal business and export coal abroad as well as provide fuel to utilities across the country.

El Segundo belongs to St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp., the world's largest private-sector coal producer, and Black Thunder, owned by St. Louis-based Arch Coal, is one of the largest coal mining complexes in the world.

Gillette, Wyo.-based Cloud Peak Energy, which owns the Antelope Mine, said the existing leasing process, which involves state and federal oversight, is extensive.

"Antelope Mine's federal coal leases and mining operations were thoroughly evaluated under this process," spokesman Rick Curtsinger said.

The suit is filed against Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the Interior Department and its Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation. Interior spokeswoman Emily Beyer said the department could not comment on litigation.

Jackson's ruling in May followed another one in which he also found that climate change should be considering in approving a mining expansion in Somerset, Colorado. The latest case has so far been assigned to another judge, Senior Judge Wiley Y. Daniel.

While another judge wouldn't be bound by Jackson's earlier rulings, another win could lead regulators to change their approach and start taking climate change into account before approving future coal leases, said Justin Pidot, an assistant professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. The difficulty would come in exactly how that impact should be measured when other factors besides burning coal are also contributing to global warming, he said. In the Colowyo case, regulators doing the new environmental review concluded the climate change impact was minimal without going into details and mining was allowed to continue.

WildEarth Guardians is hoping for even more. It wants the Interior Department, which is reviewing whether to charge companies more to mine, to stop leasing coal to be mined and take a comprehensive look at the environmental impacts of existing mines.

"We need something big and bold here and if you're not going to give it to us, then we're going to hold you accounting to these laws," Jeremy Nichols, the group's climate change director, said.

Decisions on earlier challenges filed by the group against permits for the Spring Creek Mine in Montana and San Juan coal mine in New Mexico are still pending.

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