In a precedent-setting compromise that could affect development of the country's vast Western coal fields, US Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus has given initial approval to a massive strip-mining project in southern Utah.
Thus, the Carter administration, on its way out of office, has strongly boosted the policy of using the West's coal to help solve the nation's energy problems. And President-elect Ronald Reagan is certain to pursue the policy vigorously.
Though given the nod by Mr. Andrus, the $4 billion Allen-Warner Valley power generating system -- which would link one of the largest strip mines in the United States to several power plants by using slurry pipelines -- still has several important legal and environmental hurdles to clear.
The project, which could produce as much as 11 million tons of coal a year, is located near such national treasures as Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. One of the power plants is about 50 miles away in southwestern Utah, the other some 100 miles distant in southern Nevada.
National Park Service officials and environmentalists are concerned about unsightly and noisy surface mining, air pollution from the power plants, and ground water depletion (slurry pipelines use vast amounts of water).
Under the federal Surface Mining Act of 1977, private groups and individuals may petition the interior secretary to find strip-mining proposals unsuitable where reclamation "is not technologically or economically feasible." The petition in the Allen-Warner Valley project, brought by several environmental groups and a number of Utah residents, was the first to be considered under the 1977 legislation.
In essence, Secretary Andrus -- who is generally thought of as a strong conservationist -- has determined that 90 percent of the project's potential coal fields are suitable for strip mining. Only those areas closest to the parks are ruled out.
"While there still are other decisions to be made by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and the interior secretary, obviously we are pleased to be able to go ahead and mine that coal," said a spokesman for the National Coal Association.
The EPA must determine whether emissions from the coal-fired power plants (which will generate more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity) conform to requirements of the federal Clean Air Act. The Interior Department also must decide on rights-or-way for the slurry pipelines and location of the power plants. Such decisions could come as soon as next month.
"It would be unconscionable to allow strip mining, blasting, heavy truck traffic, and air quality degradation in that portion of the [coal] field closest to a national park," Andrus said in making his announcement. "We have drawn a line which I feel confident everyone can live with."
But environmentalists who brought the unsuitability petition vow to continue their fight -- "through every legal means possible," says Friends of the Earth energy coordinator Ron Rudolph.
Just as important for the future of the project may be economic considerations. Recent studies by state energy officials and utilities in California, which would be expected to buy more than 80 percent of the project's power, have concluded that energy demand here may well be considerably less than earlier forecast.