The Alton Coal Mine and southern Utah’s future
By Sharon St Joan
Will the Alton Coal Mine be allowed to expand?
This month, August 2018, the Bureau of Land management is expected to let us know whether the Alton Coal mine, near Alton, Utah, will be allowed to expand on to 2,305 acres of public land.
580 new jobs?
In announcing that they’ve completed their Final Environmental Impact Statement, the BLM quotes several state and local officials.
Expressing their enthusiasm for the coal mine expansion, these officials call Alton coal “an economic engine” and tout the promise of 100 new jobs at the mine and the indirect creation of as many as 480 jobs. These figures may or may not be true, but we’ll assume that they are.
Let’s start by acknowledging that jobs are important. Every one of us needs a source of income from somewhere. We cannot live on air alone. So, jobs and a source of livelihood for people to be able to support their families are not something to be sniffed at. Whether they are five jobs or 500, or 5,000 jobs, they are important.
But there are jobs that foster economic growth and jobs that undermine our current and future economy.
The problem arises when the industry that creates jobs also harms the existing economic base – in other words, industrialization tends to destroy the natural beauty of this magnificent area, where our economy depends on tourism.
Coal jobs threaten, and ultimately destroy, tourism jobs. The creeping wheels of industrialization are on a track to make Kane County a place that no one wants to visit.
If we stick to the facts, we can have a look at the underlying reasons why creating coal mining jobs isn’t good for anybody. Not good for those who need a job and not good for anybody else either.
Is coal mining an “economic engine”?
Utahns work at many different kinds of jobs, notably in the tourist industry. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article, by Mike Gorrell, on March 23, 2018 (see below for the link), in 2017, the leisure and hospitality sector (i.e. tourism) “grew by 8,400 positions, a 6 percent uptick.” My math isn’t always very good, but you can check it. If 6 percent is 8,400 jobs, then 100 percent is 140,000 jobs – all related to tourism in Utah.
Compare 140,000 tourism jobs to the number of coal mining jobs and support jobs provided by the coal industry. An article by the Utah Foundation (see the link below) gives the number of direct coal jobs in Utah at 2,500. Added to this are several thousand trucking and other support jobs – which comes out to just a tiny fraction of the number of jobs from tourism. Coal as a source of jobs in Utah is dwarfed by tourism-related jobs.
If coal mining had no environmental impact and only created some good paying jobs with no detrimental effects, one would certainly say, “Why not?” After all, a few thousand jobs are still a few thousand jobs.
Coal mining destroys tourism – and the world of nature too.
But that is not at all the reality of the situation. Utah is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on the planet. Coal mining destroys this natural beauty.
The overwhelming majority of us do care about natural beauty, but even if we didn’t, we could see that coal mining negatively impacts the economy by harming the beauty of nature and thereby making Utah a less desirable place to live or to visit.
Utah’s national parks alone bring at least 8 million visitors a year, with Zion National Park drawing four and a half million visitors from all over the world in 2017, and Bryce Canyon drawing around half that. (I’m not advocating an infinite number of park visitors, that would have a downside too, but that’s another story). Tourism is the real basis of our economy in southern Utah.
The expansion of the Alton Coal Mine will be taking place just ten miles from Bryce Canyon. This mining will destroy the land and leave an ugly scarred landscape in its place. This is not private land that we are talking about, it is public land – where we might have hoped that wildlife and wild lands would be a priority. (Sadly, this is far from the case.)
The red rock country of Utah with its magnificent cliffs and spires and its unimaginable, breath-taking beauty is a priceless treasure. These lands are among the last remaining relatively untouched and unspoiled lands on earth.
They are also the key to our economy.
Setting our house on fire?
The wild lands of Utah are valuable beyond any measure that can be used to put a price on them. Yet, even using the reasoning of the pocket book, destroying them is not a good investment. It is like setting our house on fire in order to keep warm in the winter. It’s just not a good idea, because then we will have no more house to live in.
Destroying the God-given wealth of these extraordinary lands, unmatched anywhere else on earth, will not only notbring more prosperity to Utah, instead it will bring a great, gaping loss that nothing can bring back.
Coal mining is a polluting industry. There is no “clean coal.” There is no way to extract coal from the ground that does not irrevocably destroy the land – in practical terms, forever.
What is euphemistically called “reclamation” takes decades, is dependent on the good will (and continued existence) of the coal company and can never bring back the ancient crusted soils that took thousands of years to form, or the fragile native grasses and other plant life that used to be there – or the great, amazing abundance of wild birds and mammals that were present. When they are gone, they are just gone.
And what will we be left with? A ruined landscape. You can drive up to Alton, to the lands that have already been mined and see for yourself.
Drinking water for people and animals
The hidden damage is much worse. One of the tributaries to Kanab Creek has already been displaced. Because Alton is to the north of us, and the drinking water that we use travels down from the north before it reaches us; this water will be increasingly polluted. Regardless of whether it is the water from Kanab Creek, or from natural springs, or from wells, or whether it is water that trickles slowly down through the rocks over a number of years, it doesn’t matter, the harm is the same.
All the drinking water for Kanab travels down from the north around the region of Alton. It will all be polluted by more coal mining. This is not only our own water, it is also the water that the deer, the foxes, the birds, the trees, dogs and cats, cows and horses, and all other living beings depend on for survival.
An article on the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists (see the link below) talks about water pollution caused by coal mining – and the contamination of nearby streams with “highly acidic water containing heavy metals like arsenic, copper, and lead” stating that the pH from these run-offs can reach the same levels as vinegar.
Poisoning our own water is bad enough, but we are also contaminating the water used by the birds and animals who have done nothing to deserve this fate.
To say that expanding the Alton Coal mine will bring a gain of a few hundred jobs, and that this will be good for the economy of southern Utah is faulty logic. Thus “gain” is not a gain at all. It will come only at the expense of losing a thriving tourist economy – because no tourists will ever come to visit coal mines. It will harm our lives and our existence, and we will have far fewer jobs, not more – as well as far fewer visitors. Coal mining, along with other industrialization that we haven’t even touched on, will harm some of the most beautiful lands on the planet – where it is a great blessing to be able to live.
Our prosperity depends on preserving, not destroying, our wild lands. For that reason, if for no other, we need to protect them.
It is only by protecting and valuing the natural world and the amazing life of this most beautiful region of the earth, that there will be any real or lasting prosperity. This is the long-term investment that we need to make.
I agree, with probably most of us, that it is too late to stop this tragedy from happening. It is on a train that isn’t likely to stop.
But it is a great shame if we stand by watching in silence, as if we have lost our voices, while the wild lands of this region, among the most magnificent lands that have ever existed on the planet earth, are worn away, bit by bit by bit, by the great machine of industrialization. The expansion of the Alton Coal Mine is likely to be only the beginning – the foot in the door.
We can speak up – to our officials, to our community, to our next-door neighbor, or to the stars over our heads. We should not remain silent.
To put it very bluntly, killing the earth is a bad idea – which will kill us too, sooner or later, but, even just economically – it’s a really bad idea.
The BLM announcement:
The article in the Salt Lake Tribune by Mike Gorrell, published March 23, 2018, giving statistics for tourism:
Utah Foundation article, on the coal economy:
The article on the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists about water pollution caused by coal mining:
Top photo: © Paul Brady | Dreamstime.com / Bryce Canyon.
Second photo: © Philip Bird | Dreamstime.com / Bryce Canyon.
Third photo: © Delstudio | Dreamstime.com / A pronghorn at Bryce Canyon.
Fourth photo: © Sharon St Joan / Wild lands south of Bryce Canyon in the path of the expanding coal mine.
Fifth photo: © Sharon St Joan / A stream south of Bryce Canyon.
© Sharon St Joan, 2018