Environmental groups appeal quashed by federal court

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
A drag line removes a layer of earth to get to coal in the Dixon Pit at Navajo Mine.

FARMINGTON — A federal appeals court has ruled against a lawsuit by a coalition of environmental groups regarding federal permitting for Navajo Mine and the Four Corners Power Plant.

The three-judge panel upheld a federal district court's dismissal of the 2016 lawsuit on July 29.

Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Amigos Bravos, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity claimed federal agencies violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by approving a 25-year lease extension for the power plant and expanding the mining area for the coal mine.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Arizona's federal district court in April 2016, was dismissed in September 2017. The environmental groups appealed the decision in a November 2017 filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Navajo Mine is owned by the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, an entity of the Navajo Nation, and it supplies coal to the power plant near Fruitland.

Although NTEC was not named in the 2016 case, the district court allowed the company to intervene based on its interest as the mine owner.

When the district court dismissed the case in 2017, it ruled that NTEC was an "arm" of the Navajo Nation, including providing direct economic benefit for the tribe, and cannot be a party to the litigation because it has sovereign immunity.

The appeals court upheld the lower court's decision in its ruling this week.

When applying procedures that govern civil proceedings in federal district courts, the appeals court stated, "we hold that the district court did not err in concluding that the litigation could not, in good conscience, continue in NTEC's absence."

Navajo Transitional Energy Company Chief Executive Officer Clark Moseley answers questions  at the Navajo Mine during an interview at the company's office in Farmington in this undated file photo.

NTEC CEO Clark Moseley said in a July 31 press release that the company is pleased with "the well-reasoned" decision that affirms the tribe's self-determination.

"We are always concerned with outside groups or influences attempting to force their views on the Navajo. With this decision, NTEC can continue to provide economic opportunities for the Navajo people, secure funding for the operation of the Navajo Nation, and promote transitional energy opportunities," Moseley said.

Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance said on Aug. 2 that the group is reviewing the appeals court decision and determining what their response will be.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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