In addition to the new mining plan, on August 31, the OSM completed a new environmental assessment for the mine, resulting in a finding of no significant impact on the environment from mining operations.
The approval of the new mine plan completes the effort by OSM to comply with the court’s May 8 order to complete the environmental review within 120 days. OSM’s counsel has notified the court that it has completed the environmental review and approved a modified mining plan.
“We are grateful to the staff at OSM and the other cooperating agencies for their diligence and hard work to complete the environmental review within the short timeframe ordered by the judge,” said Mike McInnes, CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which owns the Colowyo mine through its subsidiary, Colowyo Coal Co. “The unwavering support we have received from our 220 mine employees, the community and elected officials across Colorado helped ensure the Department of the Interior, from Secretary Jewell down, committed the resources and time necessary to complete this important work,” McInnes said.
Colowyo Coal Co. believes the new mine plan allows the mine to continue to operate, and the completion of the environmental assessment, which resulted in a finding of no significant impact on the environment and mining operations, will satisfy the court, but it is uncertain how the court will proceed.
“The approval of the new plan should provide our employees and the residents of Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties with the confidence to move forward and focus on the future,” said Chris McCourt, manager Colowyo mine. Located in northwest Colorado, the Colowyo mine produces more than 2 million tons of low sulfur, subbituminous coal annually and is currently one of two primary fuel sources for the Craig Station power plant near Craig, Colorado.
In February 2013, WildEarth Guardians sued OSM claiming that the agency failed to adequately provide public notice and address environmental impacts prior to mine plan approvals for seven coal mines in the western U.S., including Colowyo. Specifically, the environmental activists claimed the Environmental Assessment that OSM prepared to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act for the Colowyo mine plan was inadequate and asked the court strike down the current mine plan. Tri-State joined the lawsuit to assist the defense.
The lawsuit against the OSM was not based on a violation of any air or water quality laws or regulations. The Colowyo mine has responsibly operated its mining and reclamation activities since the mine plan was approved under the federal review process, and the mine remains in compliance with all state and federal requirements.
The issues raised in the lawsuit are related to whether OSM completed appropriate public notification and analysis required during a review of the mine plan issued in 2007. At no time during the case did WildEarth Guardians argue that the mine should be designed or operated any differently than it operates today.
Judge R. Brooke Jackson heard oral arguments on April 24 and on May 8 ruled against OSM. In his ruling, Judge Jackson agreed with WildEarth Guardians claims that OSM did not involve the public or take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of mining operations when the agency approved the Colowyo mining plan. Recognizing the potential effect of the decision on the Colowyo mine, its employees and the northwest Colorado community, the judge delayed vacating Colowyo’s mining permit for 120 days to allow the OSM to address the deficiencies in the permitting process that he discussed in the order.
During this time, Colowyo continued to operate. Colowyo Coal Co. believes the court’s decision against OSM was in error and is appealing the decision.