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Coal Lawsuits Could "Devastate" Entire Mining Industry

Department of Interior charged with rubber-stamping federal approvals

Coal mining operation in New Mexico. (photo: flickr / cc / Don Searls)

Pending lawsuits in three states could have far-reaching implications for the coal-mining industry, as the U.S. Department of Interior has been charged with too quickly rubber-stamping coal-mining operations without adequate public input or consideration of pollution impact.

Filed by the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, the lawsuits take the Interior Department to task for what is described as "a chronic failure ... to involve the public and address the potentially significant environmental and economic impacts of coal mining throughout the Rocky Mountain West." They call for the government to shut down mining operations until more complete environmental reviews are completed.

While the lawsuits deal with four specific mines, the fallout from the civil cases could be more far-reaching, due to how many mines have been approved via the same process.

"If WildEarth's request for relief is granted ... the result would be devastating economic harm to coal miners, operators and the entire industry that services coal production," mining association attorney Stephen Bell wrote in a recent court brief, as reported by the Associated Press.

Under federal law, the Interior Department has to approve a “Mining Plan” before a company can mine federal coal reserves. The plans must demonstrate compliance with federal regulations and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), looking at how mining would impact air and water quality both now and in the future.


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In the case of four mines in Colorado, Montana, and New Mexico, the Department signed off on Mining Plans that failed "to accurately consider potentially significant direct and indirect environmental impacts in accordance with NEPA," the lawsuits read.

In particular, WildEarth alleges that the Department failed to give sufficient public notice about environmental analyses, approved plans that employed outdated information and standards, and ignored blatant public health risks. The Trapper mine in Colorado, for example, is currently in violation of the Clean Air Act and has exceeded its water pollution limits by more than 1,000 percent, according to WildEarth.

“Without any public knowledge, Interior has given the green light for coal companies to despoil our air, our water, and our land,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “It’s bad enough that that Interior is approving this kind of dirty energy development in secret, but it’s also doing so without consideration of the environmental implications. The public deserves better.”

Attorneys for the federal government deny any wrongdoing and have asked for the case to be dismissed.


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