Coal in the cross hairs

The scale of the Colowyo operation is massive. Workers have excavated a pit as deep as 450 feet, using explosives and outsized excavation equipment.

CRAIG — Most of the 1.5 million electricity consumers served by the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association probably don’t think about it. But when they wake up and flip on their light switches each morning, they can thank in significant part Tri-State’s Craig Station power plant in Moffat County, the second largest in Colorado.

And that power plant can operate only thanks to hundreds of local workers digging in, not just figuratively at the plant itself, but literally at the two area surface mines — Colowyo and Trapper — that provide the plant’s coal.

Ben Buckles is responsible for some of that digging, as a coal loader operator at Colowyo, which is located between Meeker and Craig. Pausing briefly from operating his massive loader recently, partway down the gaping pit where miners are producing as much as 11,000 tons of coal a day, he reflected on the recent court ruling that has raised the specter of possibly at least a temporary shutdown of the mine.

“It’s a scary situation,” he said. “But we do run (the mine) safe, and it’s a clean coal. We hope everything works out great.”

He’s worked at the mine for nine years, and his dad, David, is retired and living in Grand Junction after working there for 25 years. Buckles, who lives in Meeker, said it’s hard to find work in the area that pays like coal mining.

“Coal is our future. We need it around here. And it keeps the lights on,” he said, that latter phrase echoing the signs commonly seen outside businesses and homes in Craig.


With 220 people working at Colowyo, some 180 more at the Trapper Mine, and 300 at the power plant, coal is the economic backbone of the region, and anxiety in the area is great due to both the recent court ruling and the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

“This is a large reason the (electric) grid is as stable as it is,” Craig Station manager Rich Thompson said of the 1,300-megawatt plant as he peered down from its roof and took in the view of the facility and its three 600-foot-high stacks that tower over Craig.

It’s powered by three generator units that consume a total of 5 million tons of coal a year.

Tri-State, owned by 44 electric cooperatives and public power districts that it serves, has been working to continue expanding its portfolio of solar, wind, hydroelectric and other renewable fuels.

“Tri-State has been a big player in the renewables,” Thompson said.

But coal remains what it considers its baseload, workhorse power source, 59 percent of its total generation portfolio, ever available, even when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

Whether it will continue to play that role in the future is in question, thanks to the legal and regulatory developments of late, which have the support of people like Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for the conservation group WildEarth Guardians.

He said he’s not asking for coal-fired plants like the one in Craig to be shut down tomorrow, but he thinks planning needs to be occurring for a future that doesn’t include such plants, to better control carbon dioxide emissions linked to climate change.

“I don’t see there being any room for coal burning in that future,” he said.



WildEarth Guardians filed the suit that led to the May ruling that has put the futures of the Colowyo and Trapper mines in immediate jeopardy. Judge R. Brooke Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Colorado determined the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement illegally approved expansions of the two mines because it failed to provide public notice of the decisions and account for environmental impacts that include the eventual burning of the coal.

Jackson ruled that he was withholding vacating the approved Colowyo expansion for 120 days to give OSMRE time to rectify its error, something the agency is working on doing now through a remedial environmental assessment. If Jackson vacates the 2007 Colowyo approval, the mine would be forced to stop mining in what’s known as the South Taylor expansion area, and it currently has no other place where it could immediately mine.

Jackson agreed with Trapper Mining Inc. that the issue was moot in the case of the Trapper Mine, after the company said 96 percent of the coal at issue in the 2009 expansion approval there already has been mined. But attorneys for Trapper Mining informed the court this month that they recently learned they were mistaken, and the OSMRE approval at issue applied to a larger area than they thought. The attorneys said in a filing that the mine hopes to begin removing coal from an area that Jackson found was illegally approved for expansion, and they suggested that remedial environmental review involving that expansion occur in hopes of avoiding a shutdown.

Trapper Mining also is appealing the ruling itself, as is Tri-State, which owns and operates Colowyo and is a partner in but doesn’t operate the Trapper Mine.

Jackson last year issued a landmark ruling canceling a federal lease and other actions related to Arch Coal’s plans to mine coal beneath a roadless area in the North Fork Valley, and vacating the large North Fork Valley coal exemption to the Colorado roadless rule. Jackson ruled that the government failed to consider climate-change impacts in its decision-making.

Likewise, in March, Colorado U.S. District Court Judge John Kane found that OSMRE, in considering a New Mexico mining approval, failed to consider the environmental impacts related to the combustion of the coal at the Four Corners Power Plant.

This week, the Interior Department said it wouldn’t appeal Jackson’s Colowyo/Trapper ruling, but OSMRE was on track to address the deficiencies in the Colowyo approval within the 120 days provided. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, all of Colorado, expressed their disappointment to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell about the decision not to appeal.

“The executive branch has a duty to defend its permitting actions,” they wrote her in a joint letter.

Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked Jewell to consider appealing. The state Department of Natural Resources previously has indicated it would consider opportunities for participating in an appeal. The department’s deputy director, Robert Randall, said Thursday the department had been waiting to see if OSMRE appealed, and is “still evaluating next steps.”



President Obama nominated Jackson in 2010 to serve as a federal judge. Bennet and former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, both Democrats, had recommended him for nomination.

Bennet has been active since Jackson’s ruling in encouraging Jewell to do what she can to save the Colowyo jobs. He also urged her to visit Moffat County and facilitated a recent meeting between county officials and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

This week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee called Jackson a “radical liberal judge” and, citing the Colowyo situation, chided Bennet and Udall for having recommended him for the judicial post. The committee said Bennet praised him in 2010 by saying, “Jackson has shown to be a thoughtful jurist, one that I believe will serve Colorado and the country well on the federal bench.”

“Senator Bennet has been working tirelessly with Moffat County to help save these jobs and support the families who rely on them. He will continue to do so. We don’t intend on wasting any of that time responding to Washington political attacks on Colorado and Wyoming senators who confirmed this judge,” Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi said Friday.

The Senate confirmed Jackson by unanimous consent, and he had support from Republicans including John Suthers, then Colorado’s attorney general.

Jackson previously was the chief judge of Colorado’s 1st Judicial District, which includes Jefferson and Gilpin counties. A Harvard Law School graduate, he was a partner in the Holland & Hart LLP law firm from 1978-98 and specialized there in environmental, tort and insurance litigation.

Holland & Hart attorneys are representing the Trapper Mine in the case in which Jackson ruled.


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