SALT LAKE CITY — Opponents to a proposed expansion of Utah's only coal strip mining operation on federal lands delivered more than 210,000 comments to public land managers Thursday, decrying the pollution and other effects if the project receives approval.
Alton Coal is proposing to expand its operation by leasing 3,581 acres of federal land that could yield as much as 49 million tons of recoverable coal over 25 years.
The Bureau of Land Management, in its environmental analysis of the proposal, said total U.S. electricity demand will increase by 30 percent from 2008 to 2035, and companies with an eye on Utah are looking to mine coal from other areas beyond the Book Cliffs and other eastern Utah locations.
The land is 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park and 25 miles from the park's amphitheater — close enough that opponents say air, noise and light pollution would irrevocably change those geologic treasures and doom tourism.
"It's disgraceful to have mining go on in these places," said Dylan Gregersen, 23, of Salt Lake City. He was braving the sharp wind and smattering of rain outside the downtown Salt Lake City offices of the BLM, where Sierra Club representatives delivered their signatures of protest one day before the deadline for public comment.
Once those comments have been reviewed and incorporated into the analysis, the federal land agency will then issue a decision on Alton Coal's proposal for the Coal Hollow Mine.
The BLM's own analysis found that fugitive dust from mining could be controlled and that special night-lighting for mining operations would produce a "negligible" effect on light pollution in night skies. The analysis said as much light-glow is already produced from nearby surrounding towns in the area.
Critics also point to the heavy truck traffic that would result if the proposal goes through — as many as 306 trucks a day when round-trip routes are factored in, according to Dan Mayhew, the Sierra Club's conservation chair for Utah.
"There's a rush to mine the coal that remains," he said. "The starting point is the idea of mining coal in the first place rather than the pursuit of renewable resources."
The renewable resource argument aside, Bryce Canyon City Mayor David Tebbs rejects the notion that U.S. 89 has handled and can handle additional truck traffic.
"Highway 89 is a major corridor for moving products and goods through our area. When the economy was booming in the early 90s, there were more trucks on that road than this will bring to our roads."
The Alton Coal expansion, he said, has the support of Panguitch City as well as Garfield County to mine an ample resource and produce tangible economic benefits for the area.
"I know they are concerned with protecting the environment ... they do not live here, work here and they do not raise a family here," Tebbs said of protesters against the proposal. "They ignore the impacts on families who live in these rural communities."
Tebbs said the surrounding communities welcome the mine expansion because of the jobs it will bring, the money it will put it the economy and the type of workers it will attract.
"We want to see these 160 jobs because these are the kind of people … we want in this community. These are blue collar jobs, most of them; they have families and they are hard working."
Tebbs said in many instances locals who have voiced support for the expansion have been unfairly pegged by opponents as greedy land ravagers.
That makes him angry.
"We have a culture here," he said. "We have been stewards of the lands for hundreds of years and we care about the land, the animals and the wildlife. These groups don't live here. ... There are ways we could do this and reach a compromise."
Environmentalists: The mine expansion would be "adjacent" to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Alton Coal: Existing mine and proposed leases are about 10 miles from the southwest corner of the park and 25 miles from Bryce Amphitheater.
Environmentalists: Truck traffic from the expansion will jar historic buildings in Panguitch on U.S. 89 and hurt tourism.
Alton Coal: U.S. 89 is a four-lane highway with all types of commercial traffic, including semi-trailer trucks from Walmart's regional distribution center to the south. "Little, if anything" will change on the highway that cuts through the middle of Panguitch and other smaller towns when the coal mine's trucks join existing traffic.
Environmentalists: Mining operations will result in light pollution and harm the night-time views at Bryce Canyon National Park and potentially impact Zion National Park
Alton Coal, BLM: Independent studies found lightscape impacts to national parks will be negligible to minor. The intervening terrain blocks much light that would otherwise be a substantial problem for Bryce and Zion national parks. Predicted light glow would be less than that produced by several small towns in the area