Miners, local leaders and environmentalists offered input on the future of the San Juan Mine during a scoping meeting Thursday

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FARMINGTON — Shutting down the San Juan Mine could have a huge economic impact on San Juan County, residents told federal officials during a meeting Thursday at the Farmington Civic Center.

But while many local residents are concerned about that issue, environmentalists say a transition away from coal is essential due to air quality and climate change concerns.

Supporters and opponents of the mine attended a scoping meeting Thursday that is part of the beginning of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement's environmental impact statement for the deep lease extension for the San Juan Mine.

Marcelo Calle, the project's manager at the federal agency, said the deep lease extension for the mine was first granted in 2008, but was protested by Wild Earth Guardians, an environmental activism group. The group filed a lawsuit alleging a lack of transparency in the lease-extension process.

Craig Watson has worked at the mine for 15 years and previously worked in the oil industry. He attended the meeting along with approximately 35 of his colleagues.

Watson said his job at the mine gave him a good income, allowing him to purchase a house in Colorado.

"It's an excellent wage and benefit package, and that's what I needed at this point in my life," he said.

Watson said the coal mine has been considered more recession proof than the oil and gas industries and is less prone to fluctuations. Watson said if the mine is closed, there are very few options for him and other miners in terms of training for other careers.

"We're all very concerned about our future," Watson said.

The mine employs approximately 360 people and provides the San Juan Generating Station with coal, which is then burned and turned into electric power.

Some Farmington officials, including Mayor Tommy Roberts, attended the meeting to weigh in on the environmental impact statement from a socioeconomic perspective.

"Jobs are essential, particularly in today's economic conditions," he said.

Warren Unsicker, the CEO of Four Corners Economic Development, said closing the mine could have a devastating impact on the economy. Not only would the miners lose their jobs, but the San Juan Generating Station would no longer be able to operate due to the synergistic relationship between the generating station and the mine.

"One can't survive without the other," he said.

While the environmental impact statement specifically looks at the San Juan Mine, Calle said the impact of burning coal from the mine at the San Juan Generating Station also will be evaluated during the process.

While many residents expressed concerns about the loss of jobs at the mine, Emily Bowie, a graphic designer with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, and Shannon Hughes, a climate guardian at Wild Earth Guardians, are concerned about how continued use of coal could affect climate change and the air quality of the Four Corners.

Bowie, who lives in Durango, argued that coal mining is not a business that will bring in a lot of money to the area.

"Coal is unprofitable now, and we really need to be working to transition," she said.

She said the environmental impact statement is a time to begin moving away from coal.

"This is an opportunity to face that reality," she said.

Hughes said she believes any environmental impact statement needs to include a plan for such a transition.

"If it doesn't include that, it's not good enough," she said.

People who were unable to attend the meeting may submit comments via mail to Gretchen Pinkham, OSMRE C/O Catalyst Environmental Solutions, P.O. Box 56539 Sherman Oaks, CA 91413, or via email to osm-nepa-nm@osmre.gov through May 8.

Calle said in about a year the draft environmental impact statement will be ready for review, and there will be five more public comment meetings then. The decision regarding the lease extension is expected to occur in July 2019.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

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