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August 31, 2011

Activists Rally to Protect Bryce Canyon from Coal

Tracking coal in Utah
Sierra Club activists hold up their water quality detectors.

Numbers don't lie. That's why activists armed with digital water quality detectors are gathering along the streams of Utah, where Big Coal's top priority is right next door to majestic Bryce Canyon National Park.

With an assist from the Sierra Club's Resilient Habitats program and the Water Sentinels, dozens of new volunteers have been trained to monitor nearby waterways, collect samples, and use the data to expose the coal industry. Data that come in from a Salt Lake City lab will comprise a clickable online map using GIS software.

"The lab tests for a variety of heavy metals -– arsenic, mercury contamination, and other serious toxins," says Tim Wagner, who works for the Resilient Habitats program in Utah. One result has already detected a conductivity reading of 1600+. "Normal range is somewhere around 50 to 100. Obviously something's going on here."

Water sampling

There's been a recent upswing of Big Coal activity in the state, with the current battle taking place on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management near Bryce Canyon and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Collected data will give activists a leg up on coal companies.

"This will give local volunteers the necessary tools they'd need to counter some of the public relations spin that comes from mining proponents," Tim says.

Up until recently, all coal extraction in Utah had been underground, longwall-type mining. That now changes with the surface mine proposed near Bryce by Alton Coal Company. Coal companies are now yearning for more land -- public and private –- despite the fact that land surveying experts have noted Utah's declining coal reserves.

Coal trucks in Utah
Coal trucks line up the streets of Panguitch.

Sierra Club activist Bobbi Bryant, who lives in the small town of Panguitch, now deals with dozens of enormous coal trucks that steamroll their way down the town's thoroughfare in front of her store. Six days a week, these uncovered trucks shake the foundations of the block, leaving layers of hazardous dust behind.

"I have a customer who comes here every summer who was actually thinking of buying property in the Panguitch area. But because of the coal trucks and the permitting of the mine, they will absolutely, 100 percent, never consider it again," Bobbi says.

Coal actively donates huge sums of money to state politicians, who in turn relax rules designed to protect people's health.

"Alton Coal is very active in donating to our current governor. They have big billboard signs. They've contributed to our rodeos, hot air balloon festival, livestock shows. They have a big presence in the parade with nice, shiny trucks," Bobbi says.

Coal Hollow Mine, Utah

In Kanab -- a town of about 4,000 near the Arizona border -- Vresco Energy has proposed a coal gasification plant with 70-foot stacks that would literally cast shadows over the town. If built, trucked-in coal from Alton Coal Hollow mine would be converted into synthetic natural gas and leave residents to deal with the toxic pollution. The plant's permit currently only allows up to five tons of coal a day –- but that could increase dramatically over time.

Kanab's city council quietly re-zoned the land for the plant and tried to streamline the project. Upon learning of the scheme, hundreds of residents mobilized to unseat city council members and fight the proposal in court. The local reaction has been unprecedented.

"It's unraveling for them," says Caralee Woods of KanabCares, a local group fighting the plant. "And they're not used to that. It's not part of the culture around here for so many people to get upset. But they put it on a fast track and then we caught wind of it. We're going to stall this thing as much as possible and stop it in its tracks."

Is Big Coal in your area? Visit the Beyond Coal page to see what you can do about it.

(Photo of coal trucks: Bobbi Bryant; all other photos courtesy Tim Wagner.)

-- Brian Foley

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