Interior secretary defends decision on coal mine lawsuit

Sally Jewell
Sally Jewell

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she decided not to appeal a court ruling threatening to close a Northwest Colorado coal mine to provide certainty for the operation and the more than 200 miners who work there.

“We didn’t appeal because we determined that it would be better to address the deficiencies than draw it out in court. It will provide those workers better certainty if we do that rather than keep it in the courts,” Jewell told a contingent of local officials during a meeting in Glenwood Springs.

U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled in May in favor of a lawsuit brought against the federal government for approving a permit to expand operations at the Colowyo Coal Mine, located in Rio Blanco and Moffat counties between Meeker and Craig. Jackson ruled the permitting agency failed to take into account the possible environmental effects of coal mining in issuing the permit and gave the federal Office of Surface Mining 120 days to bring the permit into compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Mine supporters and local and state officials have argued that’s an unrealistically short time frame. Many in Northwest Colorado fear the mine could be shut down. Tri-State Generation owns the Colowyo mine as well as the Craig Station coal-fired power plant. The mine and power plant are among the largest employers in the region, and officials said a mine closure and the loss of more than 200 jobs would devastate the economy.

Jewell came to Western Colorado to deliver a speech at the Aspen Institute and then participate in the dedication of the newly created Browns Canyon National Monument near Buena Vista. Jewell came under fire for not coming to Northwest Colorado as part of her trip.

Instead, Jewell and Neil Kornze, director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, met in Glenwood Springs with representatives from Garfield, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties as well as the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado. John Swarthout, who serves as a point man on public land issues for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, also attended, as did a representative from Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

U.S. Rep Scott Tipton, whose 3rd Congressional District includes Northwest Colorado, also was present at the meeting, as was a representative from U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.

About a dozen mine supporters outside the Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge carried signs encouraging Jewell to visit Craig and “save our jobs.”

Local officials at the meeting wanted to make sure their concerns, and those of their constituents, were heard.

“Our county still has not recovered from the last recession,” said Moffat County Commissioner John Kincaid.

Kincaid said the lawsuit has national implications, adding, “It doesn’t make sense to blame Colowyo and it’s workers for the effects of coal down the line.”

Rio Blanco County Commissioner Jeff Eskelson told Jewell that at a county level, the issue becomes personal. “These are my constituents and my neighbors. I have to look then in the eye every day, and they ask me what we can do.”

Jeff Comstock, natural resources director for Moffat County, told Jewell that “the decision not to appeal is hard for people to understand,” and “reassurance from you would go a long way.”

Jewell tried to provide that reassurance. She said she was “confident” of meeting the 120-day deadline for bringing the permit into compliance. If that doesn’t happen, she said an extension would be requested. “There is no certainty we will not find surprises,” she added, however.

Rep. Tipton said he was concerned that given previous positions by the Obama administration against the coal industry, any “surprises” could be used as an excuse to close the mine.

Tipton added, though, “I was pleased to hear Secretary Jewell assure us during the meeting that the Interior Department is on schedule to complete a new environmental analysis by the court’s Sept. 6 deadline, and that if they for some reason fall off schedule, they will request an extension.”

“Given this administration’s track record of attacks on the mining industry and affordable electricity, however, we will keep in close communication with the secretary to make sure that everything possible is being done to save the jobs at the Colowyo Mine.”

The county commissioners at the meeting also questioned Jewell about other public lands issues, including a potential listing of the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is scheduled for September. The issue has raised concerns about potential land use restrictions is the bird is listed.

Jewell said she believed it was “time for an open conversation about coal in general.” She also spoke of the need for balance in land management decisions and to “preserve the character that makes this area special.”