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Lawsuit challenges permits for disputed Navajo coal mine

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By Susan Montoya Bryan -- Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Two environmental groups are suing the federal agency that regulates coal mining over its approval of two permits for a mine in northwestern New Mexico.

The San Juan Citizens Alliance and Dine' Citizens Against Ruining our Environment claim the agency and its western regional director, Al Klein, violated federal laws when renewing the mine's permit in September 2004 and approving a revised permit in October 2005.

The lawsuit, filed July 13 in federal court in Denver, claims the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement did not provide adequate public notice and failed to fully analyze potential environmental consequences as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance said the mine - operated by BHP Billiton to supply two coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region - dumps more than 1.5 million tons per year of coal combustion waste from the plants back into the mine to be covered up with topsoil.

Eisenfeld contends the pits aren't covered up in a timely manner, resulting in fly ash being carried throughout the area by wind. He also said the waste contains significant levels of pollutants, such as mercury, cadmium and selenium.

Eisenfeld and other critics in the suit claim that OSM hasn't required monitoring or protections for the area's water and air.

''OSM is creating a massive Superfund legacy for the residents of the Four Corners,'' he said. ''This is an irresponsible dumping practice and has to stop now.''

Messages seeking comment were left July 13 with the OSM in Denver and BHP officials in Farmington.

Navajo Mine covers more than 13,400 acres on tribal land and produces coal for both the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Power Plant, which provide electricity for customers in New Mexico, Arizona and other parts of the Southwest.

The permit revision allows the mine to expand by 3,800 acres, but that has yet to occur.

The lawsuit claims current operations produce significant dust and ground tremors that affect Navajos who live in the area and future operations will force some Navajos from the land.

''The agency and BHP treat this area as if it is uninhabited,'' Lori Goodman, a member of Dine' CARE, said in a statement. ''OSM must understand that community members live or graze livestock in these areas. OSM fails to recognize that this is our homeland.''

The groups want a federal judge to declare the OSM's approval of both permits unlawful and stop the implementation of the proposed expansion until the agency complies with NEPA regulations.

The groups say they don't want to halt current mining operations, but they're asking the court to stop the disposal of coal combustion waste at the mine, blasting near tribal homes and the relocation of any Navajos from the area.

The plaintiffs also want the court to order OSM to provide greater public notice when considering permit changes. Specifically, they want the agency to publish notices in Navajo and make them available in a ''culturally appropriate format.'' Many Navajos speak only their Native language and telephone and Internet access on the reservation are considered luxuries.

Eisenfeld said the groups filed the lawsuit because the OSM did not respond to requests for information about hydrology tests and compensation for those who live in the area.

''We asked and asked and asked,'' he said. ''... we were forced to take legal action.''

The case could affect the controversial Desert Rock Energy Project, a third coal-fired power plant planned for the region that would use coal produced by the Navajo Mine.

San Juan Citizens Alliance and Dine' CARE, both opponents of Desert Rock, are concerned that health and environmental hazards posed by current mine operations would only escalate with the demands for coal by Desert Rock.

''BHP hasn't been held to federal standards and it has created a huge impact already,'' Eisenfeld said.