Environmental review of San Juan Mine possible

James Fenton

FARMINGTON — Federal defendants in an ongoing lawsuit over the San Juan Mine have requested a new review of the potential environmental impacts from coal-mining operations there.

Employees enter the San Juan Mine June 16 in Waterflow.

In 2013, the Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians filed suit against the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and other federal agencies, citing a "chronic failure" to ensure any possible impacts to air, water, land and wildlife were protected from coal mining at the Waterflow mine now owned by the Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal Co.

Christopher Holmes, OSMRE spokesman, declined to comment on the suit, citing a blanket policy not to comment on any litigation.

The challenge also accused the agencies of failing to provide adequate opportunity for the public to participate during the review process that led to approval of a lease expansion at the underground mine. That process stems from a request in 2001 to change the mine's lease permit when mining operations transitioned from surface to underground longwall operations.

The federal agency approved a mining plan change in 2008 after it issued a one-page finding of no significant impact the year before. That decision, and its lack of substantive review, amounts to a violation of National Environmental Policy Act rules, the environmental group argues.

On July 18, attorneys with the Department of Justice asked the magistrate judge to give OSMRE the chance to address WildEarth Guardians' concerns, especially those concerning air-quality testing at the mine and the nearby San Juan Generating Station that burns the coal the mine supplies.

They cited "recent rulings by the Districts of Colorado and Montana on the merits of (WildEarth Guardians') similar mining plan challenges."

However, the lawyers asked the judge to allow mining operations to continue during a three-year environmental review, according to court documents.

In court documents, the mine's owners have argued that not maintaining "status quo" operations during an environmental review would "harm the public interest and (coal company) employees and contractors by effectively shutting down operations at the mine," resulting in the loss of jobs and tax revenue to local and state governments.

The mine was owned and operated by BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal until Feb. 1, when it was sold for about $127 million to Westmoreland San Juan, a subsidiary of Westmoreland Coal Co. PNM Resources, the parent company of the Public Service Company of New Mexico, financed a $125 million loan to Westmoreland so the company could buy the mine.

In June — less than half a year after taking ownership of the mine — Westmoreland laid off 85 of its workers.

Efforts to reach officials at officials at Westmoreland for comment on the legal action were unsuccessful today.

Jeremy Nichols, a climate and energy advocate for WildEarth Guardians, said in a phone interview that the federal attorneys' willingness to take a harder look at the potential environmental impacts posed by coal operations at the mine is gratifying. Nichols said he wants a hard timeline within the three years with measures in place, including quarterly reports, to ensure a substantive analysis is conducted.

"(The federal defendants) are conceding that they broke the law, and they need to go back and makes things right," Nichols said. "They say three years (to complete the review), but it's open ended. We need some incentives to ensure that they get it done."

Nichols said the recent bankruptcies of three coal companies — Peabody Energy Corp., Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and Arch Coal Inc. — signal the need for updated and exhaustive reviews of coal operations like those at San Juan Mine.

Nichols said a decision on the case is likely by September.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.