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Polite voices, high stakes for both sides

By John Serfustini

Backers, detractors of coal speak up at BLM hearing

With two Rocky Mountain Power coal-fired units shut down and hundreds of thousands of tons lying on the ground unburned, it would appear that Utah mines are producing more than enough coal to keep the lights lit.
That’s today. What provoked a massive turnout at a Bureau of Land Management hearing in Salt Lake last Thursday was concern about the future of Utah coal mining and its communities. Mining interests, clad in yellow T-shirts, were the vast majority of the 500 or so who attended.
Since last January, the BLM has declared a moratorium on issuing new leases on federal land, explaining that it needs time to weigh the long-term implications of where, when, and how much the government should charge for mining on public lands, particularly when exports are considered.
Courtesy ruled, even though the stakes are high and opinions were clearly divided.
As Kirt Tatton of Dugout Mine and Corey Heaps of Skyline explained, their payrolls, property taxes, and royalty payments contribute heavily to their communities. Dugout, with 107 employees has a $13 million payroll and spends $24 million on vendors. Skyline, with 339 workers, has a payroll of $35 million.
These jobs have a multiplier effect, with one mining job supporting three other jobs locally.
They and others wanted the moratorium lifted and royalties to stay the same or be reduced.
On the other hand, declared the mayor of Alta, “We are on the front lines of climate change.” He said tourism is the heart of his community, and poor snowpack and increases in the risk of forest fires could ruin an industry that accounts for at least $1 billion in state tax revenue each year.
Miners and those who support them, however, insisted they are good stewards of the environment. Carol Levanger of Scofield noted that her town has been near coal mining activities for about 130 years, “and it’s still green and beautiful.”
Other speakers from mines noted that the typical reclamation of a deep coal mine affects only about 20 surface acres. They also cited contibutions to habitat enhancement and more than adequate compliance with environmental regulations.
Politicians from coal country and upstate were overwhelmingly in favor of higher coal production and lower royalties. Staff members for Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart said their bosses disagreed with the Salt Lake venue for the hearing because central Utah is the region to be affected.
Laura Nelson, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, declared that coal provides affordable and reliable energy for the state. She noted that the University of Utah is working on a five-year, $16 million project to design a new generation of power plant to use coal.
The current royalty rate for surface-mined coal is 12.5 percent of gross value. Underground coal’s rate is 8 percent.
In addition, the goverment charges rent of $3 per acre of public land, and also collects funds from bonus bids for long-term leases.
This was the second of six scheduled hearings on the coal leasing revisions. In addition to accepting spoken comment, the BLM also offers the opportunity for written comment.
Detailed information is available online at the BLM website, http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/newsroom/2016/april/nr_04_26_2016.html

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