Craig hosts large community event about Colowyo Coal Mine | CraigDailyPress.com

Craig hosts large community event about Colowyo Coal Mine

Patrick Kelly

Colowyo Coal Mine Manager Chris McCourt spoke to nearly 800 people at a community meeting Wednesday night about the ruling against the South Taylor pit at the coal mine. The meeting was held at Moffat County High School Auditorium.

Wednesday night's meeting regarding Colowyo Coal Mine was rich with enthusiasm, concern and a desire to preserve a community near and dear to the hearts of many — from newcomers to families who have claimed Craig as home for generations.

In the wake of a federal court's ruling, attendees wanted to know how close Colowyo is to ceasing operations, especially now that Colowyo's owner, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, filed an appeal of the ruling.

Mike IcInnes, CEO of Tri-State, said obtaining a stay of appeal is difficult but he thinks there are opportunities to continue work at Colowyo.

"I don't ever look to that point and say 'after 120 days we're finished if it doesn't happen,' we're going to continue every day to do what it takes to get another day," he said.

The issue began May 8 when a federal judge released a ruling regarding two mines in Northwest Colorado, both of them located in Moffat County within immediate proximity to Craig.

In his order, U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled in favor of environmental-advocacy

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group WildEarth Guardians, stating the Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement did not follow federal law when it approved mining plan modifications for Colowyo and Trapper mines.

Jackson said OSMRE failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, specifically citing failure to provide sufficient environmental analyses and adequate public comment.

OSMRE was allotted 120 days to complete a revamped environmental analysis for mining operations at Colowyo. Trapper had already mined the pit in question.

As Jackson expressed in his opinion, the new evaluation must consider what happens to coal after it is taken out of the ground.

On the 26th day of the 120-day countdown, Moffat and Rio Blanco County Commissioners hosted a public forum with representatives from Tri-State. Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger also attended the meeting.

Tri-State officials told the audience that they filed an appeal on the ruling and asked Jackson to allow mining to continue until the appeals process is resolved.

Craig Mayor Ray Beck began the meeting by asking past and present coal miners in the audience to stand. Approximately half of the crowd rose to the sound of applause.

"We want to thank you for all that you do and the vital role you play in out communities, thank you for being here tonight," Beck said.

Meeker Mayor Regas Halandras contributed to the meeting's introduction by describing far-reaching consequences of ceasing mining operations at Colowyo.

"If we go down, they do, too," Halandras said.

Tri-State began its discourse with Rick Gordon, board chairman. Gordon reassured mine employees and said the Tri-State board is committed to continue coal generation.

"Once we get through this challenge, and I'm certain we will, there's more challenges awaiting us," he said, noting the shifting landscape of environmental administration.

Next, Colowyo Mine Manager Chris McCourt took the stage to give a recap of mining operations and clarified that Guardians' claim focused on coal combustion — not mining operations at Colowyo.

"We have a very good record of environmental compliance," he said. "In fact, since the acquisition of Colowyo by Tri-State back in 2011, we've had over 60 environmental inspections… and we have not received a single violation."

McCourt said South Taylor Pit, the pit under dispute, is currently Colowyo's only permitted coal reserve, which is why the lawsuit is such a big deal.

According to McCourt, if OSMRE is not able to meet the standards the court has dictated within the given timeframe, "(Colowyo) will not have any have any permitted reserves in front of us to keep coal production in progress."

A review of NEPA, the law under which Guardians filed their claim against OSMRE, was provided by Doug Lempke, senior environmental policy analyst for Tri-State.

Lempke emphasized the importance of public participation in the process of crafting a new environmental analysis for Colowyo.

"We strongly encourage all of you to participate in the public process, submit public comments," he said.

OSMRE will host a meeting from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Grandstands to receive public comment on Colowyo's court-ordered environmental analysis.

McInnes was the last to speak before the question and answer session.

"It's critical that you do the great work that you've already done," he said to his employees. "Be safe; do your work well."

McInnes said while the miners focus on daily operations, they can be assured "those of us that typically sit over in the ivory tower will be trying to do our part as well."

Executive Director of Club 20 Christian Reece also attended the forum and said the ruling came out right before Club 20 representatives went to Washington, D.C. for an annual meeting. Beck and other Club 20 officials positioned themselves in front of U.S. Colorado lawmakers.

"We were really able to play an instrumental roll with getting the ball rolling with the federal delegation," she said to the Daily Press.

Since that visit U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardener, R-Colorado, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colorado, have all composed letters encouraging Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to appeal as well. Gov. John Hickenlooper also has sent a letter to Jewell.

A representative from his staff was present at the meeting. Bob Randal, the deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, read a statement from Executive Director Mike King.

"We are reviewing opportunities to participate in an appeal of the U.S. District Court ruling that threatens to shut down the Colowyo coal mine. … Last month, Gov. Hickenlooper asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to do everything possible to respond to the judge's ruling and remedy the situation as expeditiously as possible. We pledge to do the same," read a piece of King's statement.

Tri-State officials said they have not heard from Jewell on the requests to appeal on a federal level.

The group had an hour-long question and answer session. Mainly, the audience wanted to know how to get Craig's story heard. Some suggested contacting FOX News, and Tri-State officials told the community to use social media to get the word out.

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