Federal officials shut down PacifiCorp's coal preparation plant in Emery County at 3 p.m. Friday, threatening the operation of the company's three Emery County mines and costing the firm $18,000 a day.
If PacifiCorp can't get the preparation plant opened in the next week, Emery County miners may be temporarily laid off."There's no point mining the coal if there's no place to send it," said David Eskelsen, spokesman for PacifiCorp.
The closure of the preparation plant idled 15 employees and may also curtail the operation of the Hunter Power Plant next door. The preparation plant washes and crushes freshly mined coal before sending it next door to be burned.
Some employees were still at the plant Friday night doing maintenance work on the building. Mike Scow, an electrician/
mechanic and PacifiCorp employee for 15 years, said workers were told as of Friday they're "idled indefinitely."
"We don't have a job, and I guess until they get this permit, we'll be idled," he said. "We could be without work for weeks or months."
In a fight to keep the plant open, PacifiCorp attorneys hastily drafted a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior Friday and raced down to federal court, filing it minutes before the court closed for the weekend.
PacifiCorp will go before U.S. District Judge Dee Benson at 1 p.m. Monday to seek a temporary restraining order against federal regulators, banning them from closing the plant until the dispute between PacifiCorp and the government can be resolved.
The issue: a turf war between state and federal regulators over whether the preparation plant should be regulated by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.
Preparation plants located next to power plants are not regulated by that office.
The coal preparation plant is next door to the Hunter Power Plant and connected to it by a conveyer belt, said Dave Jordan, PacifiCorp attorney, so the preparation plant should not be regulated by OSM. In 1991, the Utah Division of Oil Gas and Mining concluded that the plant did not need such a permit.
But the Albuquerque office of OSM disagreed. The office issued a cessation order Thursday, because the preparation plant had not obtained a permit to operate from OSM.
"PacifiCorp feels trapped in the middle of a dispute between state and federal regulators," Jordan said. "The state is supposed to have primacy in these matters. We've done everything just the way the state has asked us to do."
Every day the plant is shut down will cost the company money and workers their livelihood.
"I've got a family to provide for," Scow said. "I'm going to have to find a way to put food in their mouths."
Workers aren't sure if they should consider themselves laid off and look for work or try to wait out the court battle in hopes of keeping their jobs.
Les Cox said he hopes he'll be going to work Monday morning.
"I plan on going to work," Cox said. "But I guess I'll know by Sunday. It's be hard to find another job like I have with the wages and benefits. I'm not sure what I could find."
OSM failed to give Utah 10 days advance notice of the closure as it is required to do by federal law, Jordan said. "We have heard rumors that this might happen, but we got no official notice until yesterday afternoon."
The state and OSM have had ongoing battles for several years over the issue. "This is the third time in the last three years PacifiCorp has been caught in the middle. We'd like to see this resolved," said Blake Webster, permitting administrator for Interwest Mining Company, the management subsidiary for PacifiCorp's coal mines.
PacifiCorp owns three operating mines in Emery County: the Cottonwood mine, the Deer Creek mine and the Trail Mountain mine. The three mines employ about 700 miners, Webster said.