Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus struck a narrow compromise on a major and highly controversial strip mining proposal for southern Utah yesterday, ruling out mining near scenic Bryce Canyon National Park but allowing enough mining nearby to keep a huge power project in business.
Andrus said he thinks "everyone can live with" his verdict, which is the first of its kind and has been pending for a year. All sides expressed grudging satisfaction with the outcome.
Backers of the Allen-Warner Valley Power System had planned to mine 11 million tons of coal annually for 20 to 25 years along a 35-mile section of the Alton Hills just outside the park and partly within sight of Yovimpa Point, one of the park's major scenic outlooks. The coal would go by slurry pipeline to two huge power plants, one in Utah and one in Nevada, that would send 84 percent of their power to California.
However, a coalition of environmentalists asked Andrus to declare the entire area unsuitable for mining under a previously unused section of the Surface Mining Act of 1977.
Andrus said yesterday that studies by the Interior Department, six other federal agencies and the state of Utah failed to support the environmentalist' contentions that the mined land could not be reclaimed, that wildlife would be threatened, that water supplies would be permanently damanged or that the towering red sandstone structures within the park would be damanged by vibrations from blasting at the mine.
"But it would be unconscionable to allow strip mining, blasting, heavy truck traffic and air quality degradation in that portion of the field closest to a national park whose unique features include scenic sandstone formations, remarkable visual clarity, extraordinary distant vistas and very low levels of background noise," Andrus said in his decision.
He therefore ruled 10 percent of the 26,600 coalfilled acres at stake unsuitable for coal mining, excluding the area nearest the park. But he left the owners with all but 24 million of their projected 290 million tons of coal still available. The actual mining permits have yet to be granted and are many hearings away, but the Andrus action settles the major issue of the relaitonship of the project to the park.
"We would like to have had it all, but I think we can live with it all right," said John C. Gibbs, executive vice president of Nevada Power Co., which is planning the $4 billion project along with Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the city of St. George, Utah. The consortium will seek to exchange its coal leases in the unsuitable area for some where mining can proceed, he said. "The project will go forward."
Rafe Pomerance of Friends of the Earth said he was pleased with the decision although still worried about possible noise and air pollution damage to the park. Tom Graff of the Environmental Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif., called the verdict "a compromise that establishes some very good precedents and some bad ones." The latter, he said, include Andrus' lack of detail on the water rights issue. The two groups, the Sierra Club and seven area ranchers had filed the unsuitability petition.
The decision does not affect about 95,000 acres of state and locally owned land within the area of the unsuitability petiton, which covered 325,000 acres including Bryce Canyon National Park and the Dixie National Forest north of Kenab, Utah.