ALTON, Kane County — An expanded strip mine near Bryce Canyon National Park would have long-term environmental effects but bring much-needed jobs and additional tax revenue to the area, federal land managers said in a report released Friday.
The proposed 3,500-acre coal mine also would pose a significant threat to archaeological and cultural resources in the area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's draft environmental study. But the report says at least some of the damage could be mitigated during operations and natural habitats likely restored as the coal reserve is tapped.
"It's a project with significant impacts," said Keith Rigtrup, a district planner for the BLM office in Cedar City, Utah. "We've built in these mitigations to try to minimize those impacts."
Three alternatives are studied in the report, including the prohibition of any mining and another that would reduce the amount of acreage available. Rigtrup said the agency is currently proposing that the full 3,500 acres be permitted for mining, although he emphasized a final decision is at least a year away and will take public comments into account.
Environmental groups pounced on the document, describing is as an inadequate analysis of the proposed mine.
The project was proposed in 2004 by Alton Coal Development, which already operates the Coal Hollow Mine on 635 acres of adjacent private land near the small southern Utah town of Alton. The BLM estimates the area holds at least 50 million tons of recoverable coal, all of which is owned by the federal government.
More than 100 jobs could be created, which would bring a needed economic boost to the area, Kane County Commissioner Doug Heaton said.
"There are very few jobs right now that can support a family" in the area, Heaton said. Because the mine jobs pay between $15 and $20 an hour, "we consider this to be a great benefit."
Concerns about the environmental damages are overblown, Heaton said. While the mine would potentially require pits as deep as 300 feet, those would eventually be filled and ideally reseeded with grasses that would be more beneficial to wildlife and grazing animals than the current scrub oak and pinion pine trees.
Heaton, a lifelong Alton resident who lives within a mile of the existing mine, said there would also be no aesthetic impact for visitors to Bryce Canyon unless people "wanted to see the mine and knew where to look."
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Environmental groups argue the project will ruin important natural habitats for native species such as the mule deer, and will create dust that will foul the air and reduce visibility for stargazers.
"Forsaking all of these diverse benefits for a few years' worth of dirty coal and the profits for one company is not sound public lands management," said Tim Wagner, a representative of The Sierra Club.
The BLM has scheduled five public hearings throughout Utah, beginning Nov. 29 in Alton and finishing Dec. 7 in Salt Lake City. Public comments will also be accepted by the agency for 60 days.