Dollars or dust: Alton mine expansion promises dollars, brings fears
It would add jobs, but environmentalists don't want pollution
ALTON, Kane County — Dust in one hand or dollars in the other.
The conflict over a proposed expansion of Utah's only strip mining operation pits fears about an endless line of big trucks hauling dirty coal against the allure of new, desirable jobs and the ability to stay put where you grew up.
Alton Coal Development wants to lease a tract of coal reserves in the area — as much as 3,581 acres of land, extending the life of its mine to up to 25 years. With that, Alton contends there will be 160 new jobs for people, generating $6.5 million in wages over time and up to $197 million in total royalty revenue, of which Utah will get half.
Bobbi Bryant isn't buying.
"I don't care what kind of economic impact they are promising," she said. "Whatever it is, it will never equal what we are going to lose in terms of tourism and quality of life."
Bryant runs Bronco Debbi's on Panguitch's Main Street, which is actually U.S. 89 in the form of a little two-lane highway that is a state-recognized Scenic Byway.
"I don't think this is the correct industry we should be trying to attract to our area," she said.
Alton is proposing to lease and develop untapped coal reserves that could yield as much as 49 million tons over the next 21 to 25 years. The expansion would augment its existing Coal Hollow Mine which operates on private and state land under a permit issued last year. To lease the land, the Bureau of Land Management must complete an environmental study of potential impacts — from air and water quality to possible interference with national parks and disturbance of wildlife and habitat.
A series of public informational meetings hosted by the federal agency concluded Wednesday night in Salt Lake City, but on the same day the BLM announced it would extend its public comment deadline to Jan. 27 because of the holiday season.
That extension had been sought by opponents who contend that the coal mine expansion — no matter the color, shape or size — is a disastrous, ill-fated mistake for the area.
Tim Wagner, Utah's point man for the Sierra Club, can quickly run through a variety of reasons Alton is no place for more coal extraction.
Tourism and big trucks don't mix. Prime habitat for renowned mule deer and elk populations and big trucks aren't a good fit.
"It will be a major slaughterhouse for the deer," Wagner said.
Coal — being used to mostly power California — shouldn't continue to be a resource that government agencies pursue for extraction expansion, he argues.
In the organization's opposition, it brought out one of its big guns from San Francisco: Bruce Hamilton, the group's national deputy executive director.
Hamilton says in addition to the Utah campaign against the expansion, the Sierra Club is mounting a California-level attack to help wean Los Angeles from dependency on Utah coal.
"Utah is treated like an energy colony and you get all the pollution," he said. Both Wagner and Hamilton met with the Deseret News editorial board prior to Wednesday night's meeting.
"It's just the wrong place for that kind of industry," Wagner said, pointing to the area's reliance on tourism generated by Bryce National Park, which is 10 miles away from the proposed expansion.
Opponents have raised concerns about the mining operations' impacts to the night skies around Bryce and Zion national parks, as well as Cedar Breaks National Monument. Conclusions of the park managers after a contracted modeling study found that light scape impacts would be "negligible to minor," according to the draft study.
Wagner and other critics are skeptical however, because those impacts depend ultimately on how the mining operator actually works to minimize those — and that would be long after permits are issued.
After the BLM goes through a review of comments on this draft analysis, a final document will be prepared and most likely released by next summer.
Written comments may be submitted by letter to the address below, or by email to: UT_Kanab_Altoncoal@blm.gov. Include "Alton Coal Lease Environmental Impact Statement" in the correspondence to Keith Rigtrup, Bureau of Land Management, Kanab Field Office, 319 North 100 East, Kanab, UT 84741
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