Environment

A federal judge in Colorado has ruled the federal government should have taken the indirect environmental effects of expanding the Colowyo and Trapper coal mines into account before issuing a permit. These “indirect effects” include the environmental toll of burning the coal in power plants. But because of differences in the way western and eastern coal mines are regulated, it’s hard to say what effect, if any, this ruling could have on Appalachian mines.

In the west, most of the coal is on federal lands. So as part of the permitting process, coal companies have to get approval from the Office of Surface Mining and the Secretary of the Interior. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the federal government is required to analyze the environmental impacts of mining.

But NEPA only applies to the federal government, not to states, and Kentucky has been delegated the authority to manage the commonwealth’s coal mining by the federal government.

“To say it’s apples to oranges, it’s not even that,” said Jeremy Nichols of Wild Earth Guardians, the environmental group that sued OSM over its decision to grant the permits to the Colowyo and Trapper mines. “It’s like apples to carrots. The state permitting processes are very different. And even though there’s some environmental accountability in place, it’s not as explicit as it is under the federal law.”

Up until now, examination of the environmental impact of a coal mine has focused on the mine’s immediate physical footprint. But in the court decision earlier this month, Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that OSM was required to expand its view and take into account the environmental impact of burning the coal, too.

“Both the Colowyo and Trapper EAs estimate the increase in coal production resulting from the proposed lease expansions on each mine. If OSM can predict how much coal will be produced, it can likewise attempt to predict the environmental effects of its combustion. Just because it does not possess perfect foresight as to the timing or rate of combustion or as to the state of future emissions technology does not mean that it can ignore the effects completely,” he wrote.

Nichols said his group was happy with the ruling. OSM hasn’t decided if it will appeal the decision yet; either way,  Nichols said it’s hard to say whether it could have any implications in coal mining areas (like Kentucky) where states issue the permits.

“Even though that came to a head in our case in relation to this federal approval, it does seem it might put the onus on the Office of Surface Mining to take into account those impacts as it oversees the way states throughout the country regulate coal mines,” Nichols said.