SALT LAKE CITY â€” On the same day Gov. Gary Herbert sat down with a coal company that complained regulators were taking too long to issue a strip-mining permit, his campaign aides were cashing a $10,000 check from the company.
The pleas from Alton Coal Development LLC did not go unanswered. According to a memo obtained by The Associated Press, state regulators at the meeting agreed to fast-track a decision approving the mine near Panguitch, despite opposition from residents.
Herbert's office said Wednesday he never ordered regulators to give their approval and didn't know about the company's donation.
The decision has some residents of the small tourist town about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City concerned, with one business owner characterizing the payment as a blatant effort by the coal developer to influence the Herbert administration.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out," said Bobbi Bryant, owner of the gift and coffee shop Bronco Bobbi's, who said she was opposed to the strip mine because the operation would send coal trucks as often as 300 times a day through Panguitch, which is near Bryce Canyon National Park.
"There's a lot more people down here against it than officials want you to know," she said.
The 33-page memo from the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining said the result of the coal company's September meeting with the Republican governor was to fast-track a decision by regulators. Priscilla Burton, a chief environmental scientist for the agency who wrote the memo, noted regulators had a full year to make a decision.
"However, the applicant had an audience with the governor on Sept. 17, 2009, with the result that the permitting process will end on Oct. 15, 2009," Burton wrote. The mining approval was issued four days later.
A Jan. 11 filing by Herbert's political-action committee indicated that the coal company made its $10,00 donation on the same day it met with Herbert, but the check actually arrived four days earlier and was deposited in a bank on the day of the meeting, Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling clarified Wednesday.
Regulators from the division showed up in Panguitch days after the meeting "saying they felt pressure to get some reports or inspections done for the approval," according to Bryant.
But a Utah regulator who was in the meeting with Alton and Herbert has said the governor never instructed him to make any particular decision and instead inquired, "When do you think you will get it out?"
John Baza, the mining agency director, said he then decided to hurry things up.
Environmental groups are seeking to block the mining, saying the strip mine would raise dust and foul air quality 10 miles from the national park, which is known for its views, pristine air and sparkling night skies. Bryce Canyon's superintendent also has objected.
The groups have appealed the decision, which is now under review by a state board.
"This mine will damage the pristine air and water quality and wildlife of the area, increase dangerous truck traffic and have negative impacts on tourism and the visitor experience at Bryce Canyon National Park," said Clair Jones of the Utah Sierra Club.
James J. Wayland of Naples, Fla., a 50-percent owner of Alton, didn't immediately return a phone message Wednesday.
Welling reiterated that Herbert "did not direct" anyone in the mining agency to "take any particular action with regard to Alton Coal Development's project." Nor was Herbert aware of the donation, and he did not accept the check at the meeting, Welling said.
"Fundraising is entirely a function of the campaign. Those of us who staff and schedule meetings are unaware of who is contributing or how much they've contributed," she said.
Herbert "is a longtime supporter of energy development in the state of Utah, particularly coal development and clean coal technology," Welling told the AP in one of a series of e-mails. "As such, it should not be surprising that a company such as Alton Coal would choose to support Governor Herbert."