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Federal San Juan coal review worries environmentalists

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A federal permit review for the San Juan Coal Mine near Farmington has environmentalists worried that operations there could potentially be extended to 2033, and site reclamation delayed for many years.

The U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a draft environmental impact statement on San Juan in May analyzing potential effects of extending the permit 14 years beyond its current September 2019 expiration date. That’s because previous owner BHP Billiton thought it would continue to supply fuel for the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station – the mine’s sole customer – until 2033.

But Westmoreland Coal Co. bought the mine in 2016 after negotiating a contract with Public Service Co. of New Mexico and other plant owners to continue supplying fuel through 2022, when PNM and its partners expect to shut the plant down. Westmoreland has indicated it expects to shut the mine when the power plant closes.

Nevertheless, the feds’ draft statement includes analysis of environmental impacts assuming mine owners find other coal customers after 2022, raising concern among environmentalists.

“The analysis talks about potentially shipping coal to markets in China,” said Rebecca Sobel of WildEarth Guardians. “It focuses entirely on continued operations through 2033 when it should be analyzing a transition away from coal and potential for new economic activities in the region.”

Environmentalists want regulators to redirect their efforts into planning for worker retraining programs, economic diversification in local communities and environmental remediation once the mine closes.

“The Department of the Interior can leverage resources, expertise and people power to assist the Navajo Nation and surrounding communities, but we’re not seeing any attempts to help transition away from coal,” said WildEarth Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols.

Such assistance is critical in the Four Corners, where the Navajo Nation and other communities have depended for decades on the coal industry. Environmental regulations and declining natural gas prices have made coal less competitive than other fuels, pushing utilities in recent years to shut down part of the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station. That’s forced local coal mines to cut their operations and workforce.

New Mexico coal production fell by 52 percent since 2013, from a peak of $813 million to $392.3 million in 2016, according to the state Mining and Minerals Division. Employment fell by 32 percent in the same period, from 1,600 coal workers to 1,088.

President Donald Trump’s administration is considering ways to slow or reverse the coal industry’s decline. But the market is dictating utility decisions, said Ron Darnell, PNM senior vice president for public policy.

“In my opinion, nothing short of direct intervention by the federal government is going to change that,” Darnell said.

The open comment period for the San Juan impact statement ended this week. A final report is expected in February, and a decision on the mine’s permit extension is expected in March, said federal agency spokesman Chris Holmes.

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