The U.S. Department of the Interior is preparing to make a decision on a proposal by Ambre Energy, an Australian mining company, to dig up hundreds of acres of previously unmined public land in southern Montana.
Ambre currently holds a permit that allows the company to extract coal at its West Decker Mine, which is set on 7,255 acres of public land roughly 20 miles northeast of Sheridan, Wyo. If the Interior Department approves the permit, the mine would expand to include an additional 500 acres of public land. The Interior Department is preparing to close the 30-day public comment period on Friday, May 31.
Following the comment period, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management will conduct a health and environmental impact study examining how the expansion would affect “surface water and groundwater; plant and animal species including special and sensitive status species; cultural resources and historic properties; noxious weeds; migratory birds; soils; and socioeconomic impacts.”
Ambre spokeswoman Liz Fuller said the application was submitted in order to continue mining at the current site. She says that if the expansion is approved, it won’t affect total production levels and won’t result in any new hiring.
Environmental organizations have lined up in opposition to the project, claiming that the expansion would damage the environment and exacerbate the effects of global climate change. Greenpeace, a leading environmental advocacy organization, reports that the expansion would be responsible for producing the same amount of carbon as 14 million cars each year.
“This coal mine isn’t just bad news for the climate. It’s also an exploitation of our public lands for corporate profits.The DOI’s coal leasing program has already given coal companies $29 billion in subsidies by selling the rights to publicly-owned coal for a fraction of what it’s worth,” writes Greenpeace.
The Western Organization of Resource Councils reports that expanding coal operations of this type would also negatively impact the health of mine workers and those living near mining sites.
In a 2011 report, WORC claims that “coal mining causes significant air pollution, mainly from fugitive emissions of particulate matter and gases including methane, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.”
Particulate matter is a special concern, the report said, because it can lead to health problems such as asthma and bronchitis.
“These respiratory problems, as well as increased likelihood of heart attacks and strokes caused by particulate inhalation, can lead to premature death,” the WORC report said.
Coal mining and transportation remains a major source of employment for people in Wyoming and Montana. The National Mining Association found that the U.S. exported 107 million short tons of coal in 2011, supporting 141,270 jobs with wages roughly 50 percent above industry averages. The average annual income for a worker in the coal export market is $96,100.
Montana is the sixth-largest producer of coal in the U.S. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Montana produced 42 million short tons of coal in 2011, trailing only Texas, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Growing public opposition to domestic coal use has led the industry to begin focusing on its export market.
The Sheridan Press reports that several groups are working to develop port infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest that would allow coal producers in Wyoming and Montana to ship more of their product to developing East Asian countries that are hungry for energy resources.
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