Mine Growth to Hurt Tribal Land, Groups Say

     (CN) - Environmental groups want a federal judge to review a decision that will let a mining company further expand onto tribal land in New Mexico.
     Under its new government permit, BHP Navajo Coal Company will expand its strip-mining operation by 714 acres onto land located on the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation, according to the complaint.
     The Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and others say this U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement decision violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
     Since 1957, the Navajo have leased a total of 33,000 acres to BHP. The company supplies coal for the Four Corners Power Plant, which generates electricity for consumers in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas. Activists say the plant is already pumping toxic material into the atmosphere at an alarming rate, and in an area that boasts the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and Sand Dunes National Parks among 16 mandatory Class I federal airsheds, as well as nearby national parks.
     A federal judge previously vacated BHP's earlier proposal for a 3,800-acre strip mine in the same location, according to the complaint. After the court ordered BHP to revisit is environmental analysis, the company settled on the current 714-acre proposal.
     But opponents say the company relied on flawed studies for its modified proposal. For example, they say BHP looked only at effects of the environment and on human health in a "vacuum," ignoring impacts beyond the boundaries of the mine expansion. In particular, "the indirect impacts caused by the combustion of coal and the disposal of coal ash waste, as well as additive, synergistic and cumulative impacts of the mine expansion when combined with other past, present and reasonably foreseeable impacts," the suit says.
     The Center for Biological Diversity says the grander picture paints a gloomy future for the environment, wildlife and humans. Mercury and other contaminants present in 64 percent of the endangered Colorado Pikeminnow, a native top predator in the Colorado river system that once grew to around 6 feet in length, according to the group.
     "Those fish are the canary in the coal mine," the center's public lands campaigns director Taylor McKinnon told Courthouse News Service. "The more mining, the more coal is burned, and the more mercury that goes into a system that is already being poisoned to death by pollution. The coal complex is poisoning our rivers, our communities, and it's long past time that the government analyze and expose those effects."
     The mine expansion will result in the extraction of an additional 12.7 million tons of sub-bituminous coal that the San Juan County power plant will burn, according to the complaint.
     Environmentalists say this plant is one of the largest emitters of nitrogen oxides in the United States, and one of the foremost emitters of greenhouse gases and mercury. The increase in emissions will purportedly compound environmental pollutants in an area that is already considered one of the worst in the country for releases of toxic materials.
     San Juan County is "among the top ten percent of the worst counties in the nation for releases of toxic materials into the environment and among the top ten percent of the worst counties in the nation for particulate matter and sulfer dioxide air pollution," the complaint states.
     Environmentalists say the American Southwest is an "epicenter of the effects of climate change" that will only worsen as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses increase.
     They believe the mining agency also downplayed BHP's findings on the effects of the expansion, "glossing over impacts to justify a 'Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) when, instead, there are substantial questions that impacts may be significant, necessitating preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS)."
     The office "unlawfully segmented connected and cumulative actions, which should have been considered in a single NEPA analysis," according to the complaint. This analysis should have included the plant, the Bureau of Indian Affair's consideration of an extension of the plant's lease, and reasonably foreseeable future expansion of Navajo Mine, the groups say.
     "Minorities, low-income populations and Indian tribes in and around San Juan County are particularly vulnerable to the many and worsening impacts of climate change," the complaint states.
     The remaining plaintiffs are San Juan Citizens Alliance, Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment and Amigos Bravos.
     They are represented by Kyle Tisdel with the Western Environmental Law Center in Taos, N.M.