Coal-Mining Records Spur Suit by Grand Canyon Trust

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Grand Canyon Trust sued the secretary of the interior this week for information the government has about the environmental impact of the federal coal-leasing program, particularly its effects on climate change.

The 3,500-member nonprofit said the secretary is long past due to respond to its 9-month-old Freedom of Information Act request. In its Tuesday complaint, filed with a federal judge in Washington, the Grand Canyon Trust says the Interior Department has invoked “unusual circumstances” one too many times to delay its response.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke told the trust only last week in response to its Aug. 2, 2016, FOIA request that his office has fewer than 100 pages of records submitted by coal companies, including BNI Energy, Alton Coal Development and Bowie Resource Partners.

The secretary told the trust it would take at least more two months to complete a review of records, if not longer. It said the length of the delay would depend upon how quickly attorneys can sort through sensitive documents and seek objections to information that may be released.

The Grand Canyon Trust seeks records on Order 3338, the Discretionary Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to Modernize the Federal Coal Program.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued the order in January 2016, placing a moratorium on coal leasing, with limited exceptions.

In March this year Zinke revoked the order, allegedly to “improve internal management.”

“With the revocation of secretary’s Order 3338, the Bureau of Land Management is directed to process coal lease applications and modifications expeditiously in accordance with regulations and guidance existing before the issuance of secretary’s Order 3338,” the revocation order states. “All activities associated with the preparation of the federal coal program … shall cease.”

Though the Grand Canyon Trust’s troubles began months before Zinke took over Jewell’s position, the secretary has a considerable amount of related materials up for review on his desk already.

In April, President Trump signed the Antiquities Act Executive Order, instructing Zinke to review the designations of tens of millions of acres of federally protected lands to determine if previous administrations abused their powers when the protections were enforced.

Zinke is tasked with reviewing more than two decades worth of protected land designations by former presidents, including the protection of Bear Ears National Monument in Utah by President Barack Obama last December.

The review is specific to monuments 100,000 acres or larger: about 24 to 40 monuments. Zinke told reporters in April that President Trump’s authority on the matter was “singular,” and that the point of the review was not to strip lands of designations. He said its aim is to evaluate if those designations resulted in job loss, wage reduction or restriction of access for people who live in nearby communities.

The Department of the Interior did not reply to a request for comment Wednesday.

The Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust is represented by Matt Kenna, with Public Interest Environmental Law in Durango, Colorado, and Eric Ames in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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