ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — A federal judge has blocked efforts by a Navajo Nation coal mine to expand operations within its permitted area in northwestern New Mexico.
Navajo Transitional Energy Co. LLC is seeking an emergency stay on the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John Kane in Colorado. The company says the ruling will not affect supply to the Four Corners Power Plant in the immediate future but jeopardizes its long-term sustainability.
Kane earlier this year ruled that the federal Office of Surface Mining must consider the effects of burning the coal extracted from the Navajo Mine. The parties in a 2012 lawsuit failed to reach an agreement on the remedy, so Kane this week sent the tribe's application for a permit revision back to the Surface Mining officials and ordered them to comply with federal law.
The agency is set to release an environmental impact statement for the power plant and the mine soon. Kane said it's possible that could satisfy his order and allow mining to resume in a roughly 800-acre section of the Navajo Mine. The total permitted area is nearly 21,000 acres near Farmington.
Environmental groups had challenged the Office of Surface Mining's claim that the Navajo Mine isn't harming the environment of people's health. They were concerned particularly with the effect of mercury coming from the power plant's combustion and the disposal of coal ash waste.
"It's tiresome that these processes are being marginalized, that we're getting documents that are minimizing the responsibility for impacts to the water, to the land, to public health," said Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance. "It's somewhat shameful the approach."
Christopher Holmes, a spokesman for the Office of Surface Mining, declined to comment on Kane's ruling. In court documents, the agency argued it has little, if any, authority to address any effects and that vacating its approval of the permit revision application would affect the tribe's economy and threaten the reliability of the region's power supply.
Navajo Transitional Energy CEO Clark Moseley said the environmental harms were "wholly speculative." The company also has filed a notice of appeal with the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.