ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Environmentalists are suing the federal government over approval of a permit that allows for expansion of a coal mine in northwestern New Mexico.
The Western Environmental Law Center filed the suit Tuesday in federal court in Colorado on behalf of five environmental groups. The complaint names the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.
The groups are challenging the agency's recent approval of a 714-acre expansion at BHP Billiton's Navajo Coal Mine as well as its claim that the mine hasn't caused health and environmental impacts.
Anna Frazier, a member of the group Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, said the mine has affected the land, air and water that Navajo families in the area depend on.
"Residents in the area deserve a full and thorough impact analysis that is translated into the Navajo language to provide for real public participation, not another whitewash for the coal industry," Frazier said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Christopher Holmes, an agency spokesman, said the Office of Surface Mining has followed the permitting process to the letter. He declined to comment further on the pending litigation.
The mine feeds the nearby Four Corners Power Plant on the Navajo reservation. The plant, which provides electricity to households in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, is the largest single source of nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed pollution controls that would reduce the plant's emissions by 87 percent. The plant's operators are also seeking regulatory approval to restructure ownership of the plant and shutter three of its generating units.
Environmentalists contend the Office of Surface Mining's analysis of the mining company's permit revision failed to consider indirect and cumulative impacts from mercury and other pollutants coming from the plant's combustion and the disposal of coal ash waste.
The lawsuit follows another legal challenge that questioned the analysis of an earlier plan that called for mining a larger area. In that case, a federal judge ordered the agency to revisit its first analysis.
BHP Billiton said the company, the Office of Surface Mining, the Navajo Nation and other federal agencies followed a robust process in preparing and reviewing its latest permit application. The Office of Surface Mining reviewed written and verbal comments before approving the application in March.
Jac Fourie, president of BHP Billiton's New Mexico Coal operations, said the company is willing to talk with environmental groups about how it can study the cumulative impacts of the mine and power plant.
He pointed to a recent settlement with the Sierra Club over operations at the nearby San Juan Mine, which feeds another of the region's coal-fired power plants.
"We are committed and serious about being transparent, protecting the environment and willing to listen to other points of view," he said.
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