BLM hosts public hearing on federal coal leasing

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO)-- The future of coal is under review by the Bureau of Land Management, as they conduct a comprehensive review of the federal coal program.

The BLM is asking for public input when it comes to leasing coal on federal lands. The agency is holding six meetings nationwide, with one of the meetings held in Grand Junction.

More than 300 people came to the Avalon Theater on Thursday to voice their opinions on the federal coal review.

"This meeting will directly affect the North Fork Valley," said Alex Johnson, of Western Slope Conservation Center. “We’ve seen a huge impact from the decline in the coal industry. We've lost over 900 jobs in our area.”

Supporters of the review said the leasing process needs to be modernized. The last time it was updated was 30 years ago, during the Reagan administration.

Courtney Whiteman, a spokesperson for the BLM, said the meetings are an important part of the decision process.

“We do manage land for the American tax payers, so we do want to make sure we are getting input and taking that into account,” said Whiteman.

A number of people in the room expressed concern for the impact of coal mines on the land.

"I think most sportsmen are much like me—it’s not a question as to whether the coal should remain in the ground or come out of the ground," said Bob Meulengracht, with the National Wildlife Federation. " It's more of an issue of once you’re done let’s put [the land] back so the wildlife can enjoy it."

Colorado is home to seven coal mines on federal land, but the industry itself is in decline.

"A few years ago when the other operations were still viable, we were able to stay whole as a community. Not so anymore—there is nothing left,” said Kathy Welt, an environmental engineer with the West Elk Mine. “If these mines go away, this will not come back."

"We are seeing a lot of bankruptcies in the coal industry right now and one of the things that is a concern to sportsmen is that whether or not the funding will be available to reclaim that ground," added Meulengracht.

Coal supporters were scattered throughout the room, wearing yellow shirts to represent how important coal has been for jobs and the economy of some Western Slope communities.

"Sadly, some of our agriculture is going to suffer, our real estate, our schools, our hospitals, even our libraries," Welt illustrated. " It all trickles down. Small businesses in the area are having to close, and people that had their own business had to give it up and move out of the area. We are being forced out of rural Colorado, after 120 years. It is so sad."

"The local coal mines, especially West Elk, have put in a huge amount of resources to make our communities what they are today,” Johnson said. “Now, there are a lot of for sale signs and everyone is wondering what’s next? We’re not sure if that will be coal.”

The Department of the Interior will release a report with a summary of all public comments received.

The comprehensive review by the BLM is expected to take approximately three years to complete.

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