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Washington AG sues Trump administration over coal leasing

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Attorney General Bob Ferguson joined colleagues in four other states last week in a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management over a program to lease coal-mining rights on public land, which contributes to significant coal-train traffic through the state of Washington. The lawsuit challenges Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision to restart the federal coal leasing program without supplementing or replacing its nearly 40-year-old environmental study. That decision, Ferguson argues, violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The lawsuit, jointly filed by California, New Mexico, New York, and Washington in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, Great Falls Division, asks the court to declare that the federal government acted “arbitrarily, capriciously, contrary to law, abused their discretion, and failed to follow the procedure required by law.”

“Responsible stewardship requires an understanding of the costs and benefits of extraction, which just months ago these same agencies admitted they simply don’t have,” Ferguson said. “That’s unacceptable.”

The Bureau of Land Management is charged with managing coal resources on 570 million acres of public lands. Over the past decade, BLM-administered leases produced more than 4 billion tons of coal.

The Obama Administration had instituted a temporary freeze on new coal leases on federal land while the Department of the Interior did a major review of coal leasing regulations, which hadn’t been updated in nearly 40 years and do not take into account the climate impacts of federal coal mining.

Washington has enacted statutes and expended significant financial resources in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing the pace of climate change.

The Administration’s decision to lift this moratorium is at odds with environmental policy in the Pacific Northwest. A federal judge recently ruled that coal dust coming from uncovered BNSF rail cars violate the Clean Water Act, requiring the company to study rail car covers and spend millions cleaning up the Columbia River and other local waterways. Coal train traffic could increase if the Millennium Bulk Terminals project, the largest coal export terminal in North America, is built in Longview. Last week, the Washington State Department of Ecology released a study showing increased cancer risks for communities along the rail line. The federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Final Environmental Impact Study for the project is expected to be released in June.

“Opening up more of our public lands to coal mining only pads coal executives’ pockets while our health, special places, and new economic opportunities suffer,” Cesia Kearns, Western Deputy Campaign Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said.

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