- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - The effects of burning coal at a northwestern New Mexico power plant must be considered in deciding whether the sole coal supplier can expand mining operations, a federal judge ruled this week.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge John Kane in Colorado means the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement must review its decision allowing a 714-acre expansion of the Navajo Nation’s Navajo Mine. Agency spokesman Christopher Holmes didn’t immediately return a message Thursday seeking comment.

Environmental groups sued the agency in 2012, challenging its claim that the mine isn’t harming the environment or people’s health. They said the analysis of the mining company’s permit revision failed to consider indirect and cumulative impacts from mercury and other pollutants coming from the plant’s combustion and the disposal of coal ash waste.

Rachel Conn, of the water protection organization Amigos Bravos, said the potential for mercury to get into the atmosphere and into New Mexico’s waterways from the burning of coal could be significant. “Regardless, there needs to be a hard look on whether it’s contributing impacts to our air and to our water,” she said Thursday.

The Navajo Mine feeds the nearby Four Corners Power Plant on the Navajo reservation. The Navajo Nation purchased the strip mine in 2013 from Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd., through a company it created, marking the tribe’s first venture into coal mining. A spokesman for the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, Erny Zah, declined to comment on Kane’s ruling.

The Office of Surface Mining had argued in court documents that further analyzing the effects of burning coal would duplicate efforts of other government agencies and that it has little, if any, authority to address any impacts.

Kane dismissed those arguments, saying none of them cures the failure of the agency to consider the indirect effects of the expansion that would allow for 12.7 million more tons of coal to be mined from an area south of Farmington, New Mexico.

Kane ordered the parties to discuss a solution. If they can’t agree, he asked them to outline their suggested remedies to the court by March 23.

Shiloh Hernandez, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who represented the environmental groups, said the Office of Surface Mining has evaluated coal combustion impacts elsewhere and “there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to do so here.”

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