Expansion at Navajo Mine shot down by Colo. judge

Plan would have allowed strip mining of 12.7 million tons of coal

By James Fenton The Daily Times

UPDATED: 03/05/2015


A front end loader dumps coal in a hauler in this 2013 file photo at the Navajo Mine in Fruitland. (The Daily Times File Photo)

FARMINGTON — A federal judge in Colorado said that health dangers posed by coal mining are too great to allow a planned expansion of strip mining at the Navajo Mine.


On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John L. Kane ruled that the proposed expansion of 714 acres at the 13,000-acre Navajo Mine violates the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.


The ruling cited concerns over toxic mercury pollution caused by burning coal at the Four Corners Power Plant, which burns coal exclusively from the Navajo Mine, located 15 miles southwest of Farmington.


In 2012, Navajo and environmental groups sued the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement over the plan, which would have allowed strip mining of 12.7 million tons of coal.


"Enough is enough. It is time to move beyond coal and invest in clean energy for the sake of our communities and future generations," said Colleen Cooley of Diné CARE in a press release issued Wednesday. "The Diné people who reside near the power plant and Navajo Mine have suffered the burden of coal impacts for far too long. This is our home, and we cannot just move away from our communities, so we are grateful that the court rejected this plan."


Each year, the Navajo Mine can produce around 8 million tons of coal, reaping $41 million annually for the Navajo Nation. Tribal President Ben Shelly signed a 2013 resolution to buy the mine for $85 million from BHP Billiton.


Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango, Colo.-based nonprofit organization concerned with regional environmental issues, said he hopes the OSM deepens its analysis of the environmental and health impacts posed by coal mining in the wake of the court ruling.


A large vehicle is seen moving through a pass at the Navajo Mine in this 2013 file photo. (The Daily Times File Photo)

"It's just a trend. Apparently, OSM hasn't put the necessary resources to better analyze the harmful impacts of the mine itself and its connectivity to the Four Corners Power Plant," Eisenfeld said by phone on Thursday. "The nature and premise of NEPA is to take a hard look. With this second time around, any remedy would hopefully compel OSM to do a more through look. We hope they'd demonstrate an ability to do that. For now, it seems they've convinced themselves that their responsibilities are limited to approving coal mines."


Tuesday's ruling was the second time in five years that the OSM has faced an unfavorable ruling by a U.S. District judge. In 2010, a federal judge in Colorado said that an earlier proposal to strip mine a 3,800-acre area of the Navajo Mine violated NEPA, ordering the agency to redo its analysis.


Calls made to Christopher Holmes, a spokesman for OSM, were not returned Thursday evening.


Navajo Transitional Energy Company spokesman Erny Zah wrote in an email that the company was awaiting final adjudication of the case before offering any comment.


James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.


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