MAC: Mines and Communities

Judge Voids Coal Mine Expansion Permit on Navajo Tribal Land

Published by MAC on 2010-11-08
Source: Environmental News Service, New York Times (2010-11-01)

Judge Voids Coal Mine Expansion Permit on Navajo Tribal Land

Environmental News Service (ENS)

1 November 2010

DENVER, Colorado - 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.

Extracting coal at the Navajo Mine circa 1973

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

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.

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.


Judge Suspends Navajo Mining Permit

By Mireya Navarro

New York Times (Green Blog)

1 November 2010

In a significant legal victory for Navajo campaigners, a federal judge has voided a permit for the expansion of one of two operating mines on the Navajo reservation, calling for a more thorough review of the project's impact on the environment and on cultural sites.

In a decision issued Friday, Judge John L. Kane of United States District Court for the District of Colorado ordered the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, part of the federal Department of Interior, to reassess the proposed expansion of the Navajo Mine on tribal land in New Mexico.

The agency granted the permit for the expansion of mining by 4,800 acres in 2005 after an environmental assessment found that the proposal would have no significant environmental impact.

Navajo groups have long complained of lax oversight of coal operations, one of the largest sources of revenue for the Navajo Nation government. Judge Kane said the federal agency did not comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act to fully assess potential environmental, cultural and economic effects, like disturbing burial grounds or having to relocate residents.

The judge also ordered "meaningful public notice," like radio ads in both English and Navajo, to ensure public participation in decisions on mine permits.

The Navajo Mine, operated by BHP Billiton, feeds the Four Corners Power Plant, also on Navajo land in New Mexico. The federal Environmental Protection Agency deems Four Corners one of the most polluting coal-fired power plants in the nation and recently announced that it planned to require the plant to install $717 million in pollution controls to curb emissions.

Friday's court decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by two conservation groups, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment. Brad Bartlett, their attorney, said the decision amounted to "a significant rebuke of the federal agency charged with protecting communities, land and water from the harms of Western coal mining."

"This whole area has been utilized for thousands of years by indigenous people," said Mr. Bartlett, a lawyer at the nonprofit Energy Minerals Law Center in Durango, Colo. "This is where people have buried kin."

The decision "sends a very clear signal that it's time for this agency to do its job," he added.

Christopher J. Holmes, a spokesman for the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, said the agency's legal staff was reviewing the decision "and of course, we intend to follow the law." He said he could not answer for decisions made under the previous administration and that the agency's current leadership had met with tribal leaders and "we take our duties very seriously."

Officials from BHP Billiton said in a statement that they were reviewing the judge's order and had temporarily suspended mining operations in an area covered by the disputed permit.

"At this time, BHP Billiton does not know the specific impacts this decision may have on Navajo Mine," the statement said.

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