Groups seek expansion of Wyo. coal mining lawsuit

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Environmental groups asked a judge Thursday to expand the scope of a lawsuit they’ve filed against the U.S. Forest Service over plans to mine coal in northeast Wyoming.

U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson heard the groups’ arguments, and the Forest Service’s objections to the request, and said he would rule on the motion in a day or two. He didn’t hint which way he might decide.

The lawsuit is one of several that environmentalists have filed recently to contest Wyoming coal mining on grounds that include climate change.

WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and Powder River Basin Resource Council filed suit last December over a proposal to sell 402 million tons of coal reserves next to St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp.’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine in the southern Powder River Basin.

The basin is the top coal-producing region in the U.S. and the surface coal mine is one of the world’s largest mines.

In May, Peabody subsidiary BTU Western Resources Inc., successfully bid more than $446 million with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to mine the contested South Porcupine tract, helping to ensure that the mine can be expanded and remain viable for years to come.

The three groups also object to a separate plan to mine more than 721 million tons of coal from another tract next to the mine. BTU Western Resources successfully bid more than $793 million for the coal in the North Porcupine tract in June.

Much of the coal in the two tracts underlies the Thunder Basin National Grassland. National grasslands fall under Forest Service purview.

The Forest Service leaned heavily on BLM analysis in approving both leases, but the analyses were flawed in part because BLM didn’t adequately address how burning the coal in power plants would contribute to carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, the groups say.

Now, the groups want to add their concerns about the bigger North Porcupine tract to their lawsuit over the South Porcupine tract. Their concerns about the Forest Service’s approval of the North Porcupine tract are essentially identical to those they harbor about the South Porcupine tract, third-year law student Jon Lavallee argued for the groups.

“The decisions are quite hard to tell apart,” Lavallee told the judge.

The Forest Service argued that the concerns over the separate tracts warrant separate complaints.

“There are differences that, when we get to the nitty-gritty, will matter,” attorney Marissa Ann Piropato, representing the Forest Service, told the court.

She said combining the groups’ concerns about the two tracts under the same lawsuit wouldn’t necessarily be more efficient for the system.

The lawsuit was originally filed in U.S. District Court in Denver. A Colorado judge granted a Forest Service request to transfer the case to Wyoming in April.

Intervenors in the case on the side of the Forest Service include the state of Wyoming, Wyoming Mining Association, National Mining Association and BTU Western Resources.

Three other lawsuits WildEarth Guardians has filed against the BLM to contest Wyoming coal leases are pending before federal judges in Washington, D.C.