Environmental group sues Interior to configure plan for Kayenta mine closure

The lawsuit asks an Arizona federal court to figure out how Kayenta Mine will clean up if it closes.

The Sierra Club and three environmental groups asked an Arizona federal court June 14 to order the U.S. Department of the Interior to figure out how to clean up the Kayenta Mine that feeds the Navajo Generating Station, saying it violated federal law by failing to do so in anticipation of the plant’s closure at the end of 2019.

   The Sierra Club, along with the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, and Tó Nizhóní Ání (Beautiful Water Speaks) claimed in their complaint that the Interior and its sub-agency, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, failed to lawfully permit and analyze permanent closure of the mine that would cease active mining operations by the end of 2019.

  The organizations are made up of tribal members from the Hopi and Navajo nations who are directly impacted by the mining operation on Black Mesa.

   “Many tribal members within these organizations have family that live in the Kayenta Mine area prior to strip mining over 50 years ago and seek to return to their homeland now that the (mine) is slated for permanent closure,” the complaint reads. “Plaintiffs bring this challenge in order to ensure that (the defendants) lawfully permit, plan for, and analyze the timing, procedures and cost of permanent closure and reclamation of mined lands and waters at the (mine) back to their pre-mine condition.”

 Because four of the five utility owners are exiting the plant due to cleaner energy sources, NGS is set to retire at the end of next year unless a new owner is found. But there is light at the end of the tunnel for NGS, according to LoRenzo Bates, speaker of the 23rd Navajo Nation Council.

  “Jan. 1, 2020, no owners, no more generating electricity – everything, which has a ripple effect onto Peabody (Energy’s Kayenta) Mine because there’s no place for the coal to go,” Bates said recently.

   “Now, there are a lot of options, in terms of what can be done with that coal.”

One option is to distribute coal to final-end users across the country. But to do that, railroad lines have to be installed. New track construction is between $1 million and $2 million per mile, according to the Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway Company. That is depending on the company constructing the track.

   Coal has many important uses worldwide, said Bates. The most significant uses of coal are in electricity generation, steel production, cement manufacturing and as a liquid, according to the World Coal Association.

   Other uses of coal include alumina refineries, paper manufacturers, and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

   “So, there’s technology out there that can utilize coal differently than generating electricity,” Bates said. “However, that technology costs so much. That’s why there’s nobody doing it because it costs so much to do. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, today, to go down that path.”

   The technology is there but someone has to come up with the money to do all those things, said Bates. For that reason, the Nation’s focus is looking for owners and operators for NGS beyond December 2019.

   But the plaintiffs are also seeking judicial review of OSMRE’s October decision to renew the operating permit for Kayenta Mine to July 2020 and seek judicial review of the agency’s environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact.

   “(These) documents fail to analyze the environmental impacts of permanent mine closure on reclamation of the Kayenta Coal Mine, including the connection action of closure of NGS,” the complaint states. “OSMRE failed to take the required ‘hard look’ at the impacts of permanent closure of the Kayenta Coal Mine on reclamation of mined lands and waters post-closure on Dec. 22, 2019, as required by (the) National Environmental Policy Act.”

   The Hopi Tribe, Peabody Western Coal Company, and the United Mine Workers of America early last month also filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the Central Arizona Project should continue buying power from NGS.

   The plaintiffs stated in their complaint that the Hopi Tribe made their lands available for the mine with the understanding that NGS would create revenues for the tribe for several more decades until at least 2044.

   “The revenue helps the federal government fulfill its trust responsibilities to the Hopi Tribe,” the complaint reads.

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