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Lawsuit targets coal mine near Craig; decision could have serious economic impact

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CRAIG, Colo. — A lawsuit between an environmental group and the federal government could have serious impact on Colorado. The suit aims to shift energy sources away from coal to reduce pollution. However, if the mines close hundreds of people in Colorado will lose their jobs.

Moffat County has a population of around 13,000, with most living in Craig. The town is full of small, independent businesses that rely on the nearby coal mines to survive.

“About 98 percent of my customers are either their business is downtown that depend on the coal mine or they are the coal mines or they are the employees of the coal mines,” said Shirley Balleck, owner of The Flower Mine.

Craig has a long history with coal. The newest mine is called Colowyo. It opened seven years ago and offers the highest-paying jobs in the region. Miners make an average of $30 per hour, plus overtime and incentive bonuses.

The entire mine is now on the chopping block.

“The future does not look good for coal,” said Wild Earth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols.

Wild Earth Guardians is a New Mexico-based environmental group. It filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, a branch of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Colowyo is caught in the middle.

Wild Earth Guardians alleges the government did not consider the environmental impacts before it gave the mine a permit to dig.

“Coal is mined for one reason: It’s to be burned. And that burning releases carbon emissions that we now know are very harmful for our climate,” Nichols said.

A Denver judge has sided with Wild Earth Guardians. He gave federal officials four months to do a new environmental impact study, which can normally take up to two years.

“People are scared,” Moffit County Commissioner John Kincaid said.

If the government does not meet the deadline, Colowyo will be forced to close, putting 220 coal miners out of work.

“It would be the equivalent of Denver losing 50,000 jobs,” Kincaid said.

If the mine closes, many in Craig fear it will create a domino effect in town.

“Half of the businesses downtown will be closed,” Balleck said.

Wild Earth Guardians said its goal is not to rock the economy in rural mining towns.

“We are not trying to shut down the Colowyo mine tomorrow. We’re not trying to shut it down in a week or any time in the short term but our future right now before us will not include coal,” Nichols said.

Nichols said towns like Craig need to embrace the change now to make it easier to transition away from coal in the future. For people who live and work there though, it is easier said than done.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining has until Sunday to finish the study and present it to the judge.