The Jan. 5 decision by Judge Robert G. Holt in the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Hearings and Appeals will have little effect on current mining operations at Black Mesa.
The judge ruled that a federal agency that regulates surface coal mining failed to comply with federal environmental policy when it did not prepare a supplemental impact statement in connection with an application for mine permit revisions sought by Peabody Coal Company at the Black Mesa Mining Complex on the Hopi and Navajo reservations.
Peabody has mined coal at Black Mesa since the early 1970s. The application for permit revisions sought to combine operations of both the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines under one permit, rather than continue operations under separate federal authorities, which has been the case since 1991.
The combined permit would have imposed the more stringent regulations required at the Kayenta mine on the Black Mesa mine, which for years has operated under the original permit program developed by the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) in the 1970s.
"The decision essentially sends the [environmental impact statement] process back to OSM for a do-over" said Nada Talayumptewa, chairwoman of the Hopi Tribal Council's Water and Energy Team. "Mining will continue under the existing permit that covers the Kayenta mine and OSM will now have an opportunity to go back and re-visit the question of how mining operations at both the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines should be permitted in the future."
The judge's decision was based on his conclusion that OSM should have prepared a supplemental environmental impact study in July 2008 when Peabody submitted a revised Permit Application Package that dropped the need for further coal deliveries to the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev. That plant closed in December 2005.
The judge said a supplemental EIS would have triggered the need to consider additional alternatives to the permit revisions being proposed by Peabody, and that the failure to consider any alternatives outside of the then-abandoned Mohave alternative focused the EIS analysis on the wrong set of environmental issues.
Finally, he said, the failure to identify and analyze additional alternatives prevented informed decision making by the agency and meaningful public participation in the National Environmental Policy Act process.