Eugene Weekly : Natural Resistance : 6.11.09

Mine Over Matter
The price we pay for ‘cheap’ energy
by Mary O’Brien

Here’s one small, stark example of our ongoing descent into coal hell.  As staff with Grand Canyon Trust, I deal with management choices by the three national forests in the southern half of Utah.  One of those forests, the Manti-La Sal, includes large deposits of coal.  

Perhaps you heard of and remember the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in 2007, which killed six miners and three rescuers. That was on the Manti-La Sal NF. Mine owner Robert Murray, who had previously and was subsequently fined for mine safety violations, blamed the mountain: “Had I known that this evil mountain, this alive mountain, would do what it did, I would never have sent the miners in here. I’ll never go near that mountain again,” he said. 

In fact, the mountain had collapsed because Murray was hollowing out its innards. The miners were working for him 5.6 miles in from the mine entrance. The longwall mining Murray was ordering is a form of what is called subsidence mining, because mountains, being mountains rather than being evil, subside into mine cavities. A longwall panel of coal that is being mined is typically 1-2 miles long and 750-1,200 feet wide.

Now it’s 2009. There’s a new Manti-La Sal NF proposal for longwall mining, called the Greens Hollow Coal Lease Tract, with the final decisions to be made by Bureau of Land Management (which leases mines on national forest lands), U.S. Forest Service (which approves leases), and the state of Utah (which gives away water rights). 

The Greens Hollow Coal Lease Tract is adjacent to three other coal mines on one particular district of the Manti-La Sal NF. Mining within the nearby Pines Coal Lease Tract recently resulted in E. Fork Box Creek, several springs, and wetlands on Wildcat Knolls disappearing down cracks after the mountain sunk down toward the mine void. Peatlike wetland soils on the plateau shriveled. Wildcat Knolls holds one of only two year-round, struggling greater sage grouse populations on the Manti-La Sal NF. Greater sage grouse are candidates for federal listing as a threatened or endangered species because grazing, oil and gas developments, and other developments have depleted their populations. 

Now the Manti-La Sal is proposing to build 15 miles of pipeline to bring water from Quitchupah Creek up onto the dewatered, stressed Wildcat Knolls, to provide two 15 by 15-ft. fenced wet spots for sage grouse to use and  11 water troughs so cattle can eat the plants sage grouse need for food and cover.

In its environmental document for the proposed new Greens Hollow coal mine, the Forest says upper Muddy Creek, where the federally threatened Colorado cutthroat trout swims, might be dewatered. Oh, and the dozen springs that are connected to wetlands on the plateau might disappear — forever.  Oh, and also, the mine will drain an aquifer of 7,000 year old water. 

The coal will then be burned, increasing global warming, which will raise temperatures and increase droughts on the same plateau that may be dewatered by the mine.

Some mountains just don’t know how to take care of themselves.

Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at