Memo: Utah regulators sped up mine permit decision

AP News
Posted: Nov 19, 2009 5:57 PM

Utah regulators hurried a decision to issue a strip mine permit after the coal operator complained to Gov. Gary Herbert that they were taking too long, according to a memo written by a state official.

The 33-page memo, obtained by The Associated Press, shows the company met with Herbert in September and that the result of the meeting was to fast-track a decision by regulators.

Conservation groups are challenging the permit that lets Alton Coal Development LLC mine two million tons of coal a year on private lands south of Panguitch in southern Utah. Alton Coal also is seeking permission to mine surrounding federal lands.

John Baza, director of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, told the AP that he sat in on the governor's meeting and volunteered to expedite a decision without pressure from Herbert.

Herbert's office referred calls to Baza, who said Thursday that there was "never any directive or instruction by the governor to tell the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to proceed with this permit."

The memo is on the division's Web site, but requires passwords to access. It's part of a directory of files tracking the application by Alton Coal.

It was written by Priscilla Burton, a chief environmental scientist for the division, who noted regulators had a full year to make a decision.

"However, the applicant had an audience with the Governor on Sept. 17, 2009, with the result that the permitting process will end on October 15, 2009," Burton wrote.

That was 90 days before the division was legally required to act, she added in the memo. The mining permit was issued four days later.

Baza insisted that his agency had planned to get a decision out quickly. He also said that while the operator complained regulators were taking too long, the governor never ordered officials to speed things up.

"He asked me, when do you think you will get it out? I said, 'We'll try to get it out by Oct. 15,'" Baza said. He said then instructed his staff to meet that deadline "so we can say we hit our performance measure."

Alton Coal is 50-percent owned by James J. Wayland of Naples, Fla., with four other shareholders from Florida and Colorado. The company's local manager, Chris McCourt, said Thursday that he had no immediate comment on any of the company's dealings.

Four conservation groups filed an administrative challenge Thursday complaining that the strip mine would raise dust and worsen air quality 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, which is known for its magnificent views, pristine air and sparkling night skies.

"These mining activities will most certainly impact the quality experiences of over 1.5 million visitors to Bryce each year," said David Nimkin, Southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. The challenge also was filed by the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Republican state Rep. Mike Noel has said residents of Panguitch, a town on the National Register of Historic Places, are upset that the company plans to run coal trucks as many as 300 times a day through town on a 110-mile route to Cedar City, where it's believed they would load the coal onto to railroad cars for delivery to power plants.

The company has not disclosed where it will ship the coal or who will buy it, but regulators say Utah's power plants are the most likely buyers.

The challenge to the mining permit will be decided by the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, which is expected in December to schedule a series of hearings on the complaints.

"We feel like we made an adequate decision, followed the rules and applied correct expertise to the analysis," Baza said. "We hope the decision will stand up."