Mstyslav Chernov, Associated Press
Utah's only above-ground coal mine operation wants to expand its footprint in Kane County, where the Bureau of Land Management is weighing a lease of 3,500 acres that is part of a coal tract. Another 300 acres of private land is also on the table.
I think there are mischaracterizations by the non-governmental organizations that are in the business of misinformation and controversy as they do fundraising and membership drives —Kane County Commissioner Jim Matson

SALT LAKE CITY — The Bureau of Land Management is once again reaching out to the public for comment on a proposal to expand Utah's only surface coal mining operation — a controversial pitch because of potential impacts to sage grouse, nearby national parks and monuments and air quality.

At the same time Alton Coal wants to boost its operation by more than 3,500 acres, the federal agency acknowledges that difficult mining conditions and depleted reserves in Utah's chief coal beds in Carbon and Emery counties are forcing mining operators to look elsewhere in the state to meet future coal demands.

At Alton, operators want to tap into nearly 45 million tons of recoverable coal and pull 2 million tons of coal out of the ground over 25 years. Alton's current operation is about 700 acres. A separate application to expand the operation to 300 acres on private land is pending before the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, which is readying for its own public comment period to begin later this month.

The BLM's comment period runs until Aug. 11 and also includes informational open houses planned for tonight at the Red Lion Hotel in Salt Lake City, July 21 in Kanab at the BLM's field offices on U.S. 89 and on July 22 at Alton Town Hall. Both events are from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The public can also comment via mail to the BLM, attention Keith Rigtrup, Kanab Field Office, 669 S. Highway 89A, Kanab, Utah, 84741, or email at ut_kanab_atoncoal@BLM.gov

This comment period is for the public weigh in on a supplemental draft environmental impact statement that was prompted by objections voiced when the proposal received its first environmental analysis. The federal agency noted the 177,000 comments raised concerns over sage grouse, air pollution and night sky impacts, all of which received a more robust analysis in this latest undertaking.

Kane County Commissioner Jim Matson said Alton Coal has been a good community neighbor and officials there are in support of the expansion.

"We are definitely in favor of that," he said. "They have a very constrained type of footprint and have confined everything within the limits of their operating plant. … It is just a matter of them taking care of the dust control and road maintenance from the coal haul itself."

Alton Coal employs 52 people and provides another 100 jobs via supporting industries such as trucking.

"Another big factor as this permit goes about and becomes a matter of reality is that it will generate revenues and royalties that will come to our county," Matson added.

While surface or strip mining is an anomaly in Utah compared to its deep underground mines, the BLM said Alton Coal plans to reclaim the mine concurrent with its mining of coal, and has committed to a post-closure reclamation and revegetation monitoring period for at least a decade.

The coal that is part of the proposed federal lease is among several beds in the Kanab area that hold approximately 10 billion tons of in-ground coal resources. Many of those are unsuitable for development, however, snaking underneath towns, the Alton City Cemetery itself and the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area, according to the BLM.

Some of the coal also exists in the Dixie National Forest, but federal authorities have determined that surface mining of coal in national forests is inappropriate.

Mark Clemens with the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club believes the extraction of coal at Alton is inappropriate as well.

"The expansion of the Arch Coal Mine represents a real threat to southern Utah, the southern Utah economy and the way of life to people who live in Garfield and Kane counties," he said. "We are really concerned about the impacts to the quality of the experience of visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park, as well as other parks and public lands nearby."

Matson said the Alton Coal operation is "fairly unobtrusive" and is no more, or less than that of some sand and gravel operations that are common throughout the state.

"In reality when you look at its location, is in the Alton Valley. … It is not at all visible from Bryce Canyon," he said, adding that the route where the operations exists is traveled, but not typically by park-visiting tourists.

Sierra Club critics, too, have raised questions over the number of violations that have been lodged against Alton Coal since it began operations in 2009 — a dozen — but the state mining division's deputy director, Dana Dean, said that amount is not atypical for a mining operation.

Matson, who stressed officials value the region's recreational attractions, said he believes the Alton Coal mine and its proposed expansion have been inaccurately depicted by its critics.

"I think there are mischaracterizations by the non-governmental organizations that are in the business of misinformation and controversy as they do fundraising and membership drives," he said.

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