Guardians double down with litigation
September 29, 2015
WildEarth Guardians — two words that will get any Craig resident riled up.
After a successful lawsuit brought by the notoriously litigious environmental advocacy group put a knife to the neck of Moffat County's economy, Guardians became an easy target.
Unabashed, Jeremy Nichols, Guardians' climate and energy program director, has repeated his organization's goal — to keep coal in the ground.
But in the same breath, Nichols is more likely to criticize the federal government rather than coal companies.
"Trying to get to the heart of the matter here, really getting to a point where the Interior Department is honestly and fairly disclosing the true magnitude of the climate impacts that it's in essence authorizing," said Nichols, explaining Guardians' opposition to the current federal coal leasing atmosphere.
With that goal in mind, Guardians' most recent foray into the courtroom — strikingly similar to the one that threated to halt operations at Colowyo Coal Mine — challenges the validity of mining plans in three states.
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Filed in the U.S. Court for the District of Colorado on Sept. 15, Guardians alleges the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement did not apply federal law when recommending the approval of mining plans in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.
The mines in question are the Antelope Mine and Black Thunder mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, the El Segundo Mine in New Mexico and the Bowie No. 2 Mine in Colorado.
On the surface, the lawsuit may seem routine for Guardians' but with a big win in its pocket after Colowyo, the anti-coal group is taking full advantage of the momentum.
"We'd like the Interior Department to conduct a programmatic analysis of the federal coal program," Nichols said, explaining the intent of the lawsuit.
A national assessment could set a bar for the approval of any mining operations anywhere in the U.S., leading to a more robust evaluation before mining plan approval.
Professor Mark Squillace, director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said while he is on board with the Guardians' efforts from a policy perspective, he doesn't think the law supports what it is looking for.
"I don't think that they can claim a requirement that the government produce that kind of review," he said. "I just don't think that they can demand it under the law."
Squillace said there are inherent problems with the federal coal leasing program, but the issue raised by Guardians is a legal matter questioning the federal government's responsibilities.
Regardless of the nuances and efforts to address federal policy, Guardians' Sept. 15 claim is primarily an argument about interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, called Guardians' interpretation of NEPA "ridiculous."
"It is one that would impact the entire chain of commerce," Sanderson said, pointing out that a more intense evaluation of coal mining's indirect impacts could spill over into the oil and gas industry. "Maybe an oil driller ought to consider the emissions that come out of the back of my Subaru."
Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, attorney for Guardians, said the organization's argument in the claim is already established.
"At least one court has already said it is not a ridiculous interpretation of NEPA; it's how NEPA is supposed to work," she said, in reference to U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson's May 8 ruling regarding Colowyo and Trapper Mines.
Outside of the courtroom, coal-reliant communities are left reeling.
"Oh man, I can't believe it," said Ralph Kingan, mayor of Wright, Wyoming, a small coal town that depends on jobs at Black Thunder Mine. "Yea, that's crazy to me."
Kingan said essentially all Wright's nearly 2,000 residents rely on the mine for income, and shutting down Black Thunder would take the town off the map.
"It would devastate the town, basically," Wright said in a somber and shocked tone.
Moffat County Commissioner Chuck Grobe said this is an important time for the affected communities to show their resolve.
"Communities have to stand up, stand firm, stand united and go through the process and stand up to these people and say, ‘we're not going to take it anymore,’" he said.
Reach Patrick Kelly at 970-875-1795 or Reach Patrick Kelly at 970-875-1795 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @M_PKelly.Reach Patrick Kelly at 970-875-1795 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @M_PKelly.