AZTEC — San Juan County is getting behind the county's largest private employer by asking a federal agency to approve further development at Navajo Mine.

BHP Navajo Coal Company, which operates Navajo Mine, started trying to stretch mine operations south in 2005.

A judge halted the initial development in 2010 after two local environment groups, San Juan Citizens Alliance and Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, filed a lawsuit against the project. A scaled-down version of the original project is in a public-comment phase until Jan. 17 before the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement decides whether to permit the project.

The San Juan County Commission passed a resolution Tuesday evening that urges the office to approve the project.

"In this community, we've taken a hit, and those are good-paying jobs," Commissioner Jim Henderson said. "We all want clean water and clean air, but there is a point when we have to weigh if jobs mean anything."

The current proposal would develop 830 acres of land at the mine and would provide coal to Four Corners Power Plant until 2016, according to the environment assessment.

The company tried in 2005 to develop 3,800 acres of land at Navajo Mine, according to project documents.

Navajo Mine is southeast of Fruitland and has operated since 1957. The Navajo Nation owns the lands and leases it to BHP Navajo Coal Company. The company's lease stretches 25 miles south to Burnham.

BHP Navajo Coal Company employees 509 people and has an annual payroll of $46,800, the county's resolution states.

Many of the company's employees are Navajo men and women who have worked at the mine for years, which is significant because the area struggles with high unemployment rates, Henderson said.

The resolution also stated that the BHP Navajo Coal Company and San Juan Coal Company have been doing community service for 45 years and donated more than $1.6 million in 2010 to charitable organizations in the county.

"We've got a lot of organizations that need money to support what they are trying to do," Henderson said. "It is important that we have companies that contribute the way (BHP Navajo Coal Company) does to help those community organizations."

Despite concerns raised by environmental groups, commissioners said it was in the citizens' best interest for the Commission to try to keep and create jobs.

"It's not very healthy for people to be out of work and not be able to provide for their families," Commissioner Margaret McDaniel said.

Spokesmen for BHP Navajo Coal Company were not available Thursday.

Mike Eisenfeld, the staff organizer for San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the organization would be submitting comments on the environment assessment.

The environmental organization will say there still needs to be a comprehensive study on how further development would affect cultural resources, namely unmarked American Indian grave sites, and nearby ground and surface water, he said.

"This plant needs to be held accountable," Eisenfeld said. "This project is smaller (than the original proposal). They may be segmenting the bigger picture."