Federal judge rules in favor of environmentalists

Patrick Kelly
South Taylor Pit at Colowyo mine. WildEarth Guardians successfully argued in federal court that the mining plan for the development of this pit was insufficient and should not have been approved by the Secretary of the Interior.
Patrick Kelly

On Friday, a federal judge sided with WildEarth Guardians on their claim that the Office of Surface Mining did not comply with federal law when it approved mining plans for Colowyo and Trapper mines.

District Judge R. Brooke Jackson agreed with Guardians’ stance that the Office of Surface Mining failed to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts and involve the public in the planning process – requirements outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act.

“We’re really pleased with it, because the judge agreed with WildEarth Guardians that the Office of Surface Mining had not complied with NEPA’s requirements, ” said Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, attorney for Guardians.

According to Jackson’s opinion, “The Court declares that OSM violated NEPA by failing to notify the public of and involve the public in the preparation of the Colowyo and Trapper EAs (environmental analyses)….OSM also violated NEPA by failing to take a hard look at the direct and indirect effects of the increased mining operations…”

The ruling does not halt mining operations at either mine but Guardians view it as a major victory.

“It was a victory for WildEarth Guardians on all counts,” Ruscavage-Barz said.

Lee Boughey, senior manager of corporate communications and public affairs for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the company that owns Colowyo, said in an email, “Tri-state is disappointed in the judge’s decision.”

The court has provided the Office of Surface Mining with 120 days to “take a hard look at the direct and indirect environmental effects of the Colowyo mining plan revisions and provide public notice and an opportunity for public involvement before reaching it’s decisions.”

If this process has not been completed within the 120-day window, an order to halt mining operations will be issued immediately.

Trapper mine’s operations are not affected by the ruling, as 95 percent of the federal coal covered by the mining plan in question has been mined and the remaining amount will not be mined before a new permit revision is approved.

In his opinion, Jackson noted Colowyo mine employs nearly 250 people at full production and invalidation of the mining plan would likely result in layoffs as well as hardship for Craig Station, which relies on coal from Colowyo.

“I find that the benefits of immediate vacatur do not outweigh the potential harms,” he wrote.

Colowyo Mine employs 220 people and contributes more than $200 million to the regional economy. Mining operations contribute an estimated $12 million to local, state and federal tax coffers, according to Boughey’s email.

Jackson supported Guardians’ standing argument, stating that members of the organization, specifically Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for Guardians, suffered a verifiable injury.

“Using lands within view of the affected area may establish injury-in-fact when the aesthetic and recreational value of the lands would be harmed by the challenged activities,” he wrote.

The claim against Colowyo and Trapper mines was originally part of a larger complaint from Guardians regarding mines in New Mexico, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming.

The cases were severed to be litigated in their respective districts, and the Wyoming case was voluntarily dismissed.

Jackson’s opinion may affect the claims still being litigated in New Mexico and Montana.

“We think this has implications for the way OSM does things programmatically,” said Ruscavage-Barz.

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