WildEarth Guardians

A Force for Nature

Western Colorado Coal Mine Threatens Clean Air

Guardians Appeals to Halt Mine Expansion that Would Fuel Coal-fired Power Plant

Colorado—An appeal filed by WildEarth Guardians late last Friday to stop a coal mine expansion in western Colorado promises to protect clean air and thwart industry plans to keep an aging coal-fired power plant in operation for nearly 20 more years.

“Despite mounting air pollution and growing threats to our health and our climate, the Interior Department is irresponsibly approving more coal mining and more coal burning,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director.  “This is dirty energy at its worst, but by taking a stand, we can truly start to open the door for clean energy in the American West.”

At issue is the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approval of a new coal lease that would expand the Deserado coal mine, located in Rio Blanco County in northwestern Colorado.  The mine is the sole fuel source for the 500-megawatt Bonanza power plant, which is located 30 miles west in Uintah County, Utah.  The new coal lease, which contains 21.3 million tons of coal underlying more than 3,000 acres of public lands, would enable the Deserado mine to expand and fuel the power plant until 2032.

The approval of the mine expansion comes as Rio Blanco County, Colorado and neighboring Uintah County, Utah are violating federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone.  Ozone, the key ingredient of smog, forms when pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes reacts with sunlight.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set limits on ozone to protect public health.

Current standards limit ozone concentration to no more than 75 parts per billion (also expressed as 0.075 parts per million).  A monitor in Rio Blanco County shows concentrations are at 77 parts per billion and concentrations in Uintah County are higher than 100 parts per billion.

“More coal mining means more air pollution and that’s an outcome we ill-afford,” said Nichols.  “With the skies of northwest Colorado and northeast Utah smoggier than ever, the last thing the Bureau of Land Management should be doing is rubberstamping more coal.”

The appeal, filed with the U.S. Interior Board of Land Appeals, seeks a reversal of the Bureau of Land Management’s decision over the failure of the agency to address the air quality impacts of the Bonanza power plant, as well as monitoring data showing that the region is violating ozone standards. 

According to the Bureau of Land Management’s own environmental analysis, the Bonanza power plant and the Deserado coal mine are large sources of ozone forming emissions, including nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.  The Bonanza power plant is the single largest source of nitrogen oxides in the region, every year spewing as much pollution from its 300-foot smokestack as more than 900,000 passenger vehicles. 

Both facilities are also major sources of greenhouse gas emissions.  The Deserado coal mine practices methane venting, where wells are drilled above the mine and methane gas is released into the air.  Methane is not only a safety hazard; it’s a potent greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the heat trapping ability of carbon dioxide. 

A report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicates the Deserado mine releases 459 cubic feet of methane per ton of coal produced, or 19 pounds of methane per ton of coal produced (see EPA report at 5-20).  The Deserado coal mine is slated to produce between 2.5 and 3 million tons of coal per year under its new coal lease, meaning every year the mine is likely to vent more than 23,000 tons of methane every year.

That’s the equivalent of more than 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide and on top of the fact that the Bonanza power plant already emits more than 5 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.

The Deserado coal mine is owned by Blue Mountain Energy, a subsidiary of Deseret Power Cooperative.  Deseret Power, a Salt Lake City-based utility company, is the owner of the Bonanza power plant.  The mine and power plant are inextricably linked, meaning the Bureau of Land Management’s coal lease decision will lead to more coal burning at the Bonanza power plant.

The Bureau of Land Management has 30 days to respond to Guardians’ appeal and the Interior Board of Land Appeals is expected to rule shortly after. 


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