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A proposal to strip mine coal in the Alton Coal Field of Kane County, near Bryce Canyon National Park, is in desperate trouble.

It's been in trouble for years.On Dec. 16, 1980, then-Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus ruled that 9,000 acres of the field should not be strip-mined because that would harm the view from Bryce's Yovimpa Overlook. Still, gigantic reserves remained in areas not affected by the ban.

The project is supposed to feed coal to the proposed Harry Allen Power Plant near Las Vegas. Coal would be slurried by a 183-mile pipeline, and underground water reserves would be the line's lifeblood,

Last month, the new owners of Utah International, a company called BHP-Utah Minerals International, distributed its socio-economic study of the project. The study was required for a permit application filed in 1985 with the Utah division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

BHP stands for Broken Hills Proprietary Co. Ltd., based in Melbourne, Australia. But a federal suit filed by BHP-Utah says it is headquartered in San Francisco.

"Many local people from the construction work force will continue to be employed during the operation of the mine," the report says. "While the buildup of project employment will be gradual, it is expected to approach 490 employees 10 years after project initiation.

"At this time 980 additional people will have jobs in local communities indirectly generated by the project," and the county's population will boom by 13.3 percent.

Pure puffery, say opponents.

Caroline Lippincott, who lives in Johnson Canyon near the proposed mine, is a member of the Johnson Canyon Ranchers Association. She says the group is worried about water that would be used for the slurry and mine.

"We feel that the water has already been appropriated, and we're a very, very dry county down there," she said. The project could take enough water to supply a city of 25,000, she said and that will inhibit growth in Kane County, rather than boost it.

All the surface water has been appropriated and all of the ground water that could be recharged will be used up soon. A project that used a vast amount of water would have to tap fossil reserves that percolated into the ground during the last ice age.

The underground aquifer could not be recharged for thousands of years.

"We're awash in excess power," Lippincott said. "Utah Power & Light's got excess power, and the rural cooperative's got excess power."

UP&L's merger with PacifiCorp will facilitate building a new power line from St. George to Las Vegas, eliminating the need for a new power plant, she said.

Utah officials haven't yet ruled on the Alton project's mine plan or its application for water rights.

Now the lack of development threatens to bar new federal mineral leasing by BHP-Utah and its affiliates.

The 1976 Federal Coal Leasing Act Amendments required all holders of pre-'76 leases, such as Utah International, to begin "producing coal from the lease deposits in commercial quantities" before Dec. 31, 1986.

Any company with a lease that it failed to develop within the period faced a ban on new leases.

BHP and Nevada Electric Investment Co., which also has leases in the Alton field, spent about $6 million developing their property. But that wasn't enough to begin a commercial mine.

On Dec. 12, 1986, as the production deadline loomed, BHP-Utah assigned its 20 leases in the Alton field to the fellow lease-holder, NEIC. Presumably, if BHP rid itself of the leases within the 10 years, it wouldn't be under any penalty for failure to produce in that period.

If NEIC ever begins production, Utah International (now BHP-Utah) is to have a right to "develop and operate the Alton Mine as a co-tenant, each owning an undivided one-half interest in the mining properties, pursuant to a joint venture agreement."

The Bureau of Land Management state office ruled that this was not an "arms' length" conveyance.

"We have concluded that UII has not completely divested itself of all interest in the federal coal lease properties." The coal company appealed, but an Interior Department assistant secretary upheld the BLM.

For the claimed failure to fully develop its leases within the period allowed, the bureau held that UII is a "disqualified entity." It was not to get any new mineral leases as of Dec. 31, 1986.

BHP-Utah challenged the Interior Department ruling in a suit filed the last day of 1987. It claims that when it transferred the leases, it didn't retain the right to develop them, so it shouldn't be penalized.

"So the whole project looks like it's in trouble," Lippincott said. "It has been in trouble for 25 years . . . It doesn't look like it's going to get off the ground now."