Court Rules for Plaintiffs Challenging Coal Mine Expansion Permit

The District of Utah ruled in favor of environmental conservation groups who argued against the expansion of Alton’s Coal Hollow Mine and the associated coal lease which had been approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The plaintiffs purported that the BLM did not take into account the impact of greenhouse gasses in its approval. 

The plaintiffs, including Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Grand Canyon Trust, and Wildearth Guardians, claimed that BLM, the Department of the Interior, and associated individuals breached the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when approving the expansion of the mine. 

The coal mine, which is near Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, would double its size under the proposed expansion, expanding into federal lands. The order reported that the BLM received over 154,000 comments when considering the application for the lease, and over 39,000 comments related to its Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Reportedly, some of these comments were from the plaintiffs who purported that the information considered was not adequate. 

According to the Order, the plaintiffs alleged that BLM considered the economic benefits of the mine, but did not analyze the social costs of greenhouse gasses and mercury emissions in its cost evaluation. Additionally, the groups purported that BLM did not analyze the “cumulative impacts of all Department of Interior coal mining projects under review,” but instead considered only two counties. 

The court determined that the plaintiffs were correct in their claims that although BLM had considered socioeconomic benefits of the project, it did not show that it had quantified the costs of the projected emissions. It said that although the agency has the ability to use various tools in its evaluations, it is required to show information and analyses “in a way that the court and the public can be confident that the agency has taken the requisite ‘hard look.’” 

Judge David Barlow ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and remanded the matter to the BLM to reconsider its decision and accomplish further administrative proceedings. “If an agency’s action is arbitrary and capricious, the (Administrative Procedure Act) requires a court to hold it unlawful and set it aside,” the order said. “Here because BLM failed to take a sufficiently ‘hard look’ at the indirect effects and cumulative impacts of (greenhouse gasses), the court remands the (Environmental Impact Statement) to BLM for revision.”

The court rejected a request from the plaintiffs to vacate the approval of the lease, reasoning that a vacatur would lead to disruptive consequences since work has already begun and the Utah District Court “does not suggest that BLM will fail to ‘substantiate its decision on remand.’” 

The plaintiffs are represented by Nonprofit Legal Services Utah, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club.  The defendants are represented by the Department of Justice.