A single dirt road winds through the white sand and expansive piûon-juniper forests of Utah's Kaiparowits Plateau.


Encircled by Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the desert mesa hides both a seldom-visited wilderness and the state's last large deposit of high-grade coal.


Where dusty adventurers now dodge potholes, in a few years they may meet 92-foot-long coal trucks. Andalex Resources Inc. told the Bureau of Land Management in 1991 it planned to send 75 million tons of Kaiparowits coal to power plants in Japan, Korea, Nevada and California.


If the agency approves the mining plan, 300 trucks would travel over the Kaiparowits road every day, around the clock, for the next 30 years. Their destination: rail stations in Moapa, Nev., and Iron Springs, Utah.


Ken Rait, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, says, "This could be the biggest single threat to southern Utah wilderness. We are watching the transformation of a spectacular wilderness to a zone of industrialization."


Andalex was not the first to eye the plateau. In the late 1960s, Southern California Edison and several other companies planned to build a mine, a power plant and a town of 15,000 on the plateau. But under pressure from environmentalists and a waning market, they backed out in 1976.


Andalex now proposes to remove 14,000 tons of coal every two days (about 2.5 million tons a year), and truck it over 200 miles through part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, two proposed wilderness areas, a major mule deer migration corridor, part of the Paiute Indian Reservation and five small towns.


During environmental analysis of the project, more than 1,500 people wrote to the BLM, and nearly all expressed several concerns about the project, says BLM project director Mike Noel. The flood of comments will delay the completion of the agency's draft environmental impact statement until the end of 1994, he says.


In a report to the BLM, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said that truck traffic could severely impact the plateau's migrating deer, and that mining could cause subsidence over a 6,000-acre area.


Roads remain the BLM's chief concern. They increase public access to the wide desert canyons and archaeological ruins in the area, says Noel, and that could create management headaches. In addition, paving the road could cost taxpayers a bundle and increase noise and traffic hazards, critics told the agency.


Valerie Cohen, a Cedar City resident, founded Taxpayers for Safe Utah Roads in 1992 to oppose what she calls Andalex's "transportation nightmare."


Cohen's group of about 40 local farmers, artists, teachers and other townspeople meets weekly to gather information about the project. She estimates that widening the narrow two-lane roads, paving pullouts and adding passing lanes could cost taxpayers at least $75 million before Andalex's trucks even start hauling.


Cohen also worries about safety. She points to a 1990 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety which found that double trailer trucks crash two to three times more often than regular trucks. When trailer-trucks collide with cars, the study says, the collisions result in death for car occupants 49 times more often than for truckers. Andalex's trucks may travel through several miles of residential neighborhoods in Cedar City, where Cohen says parents worry about their children biking home alongside 92-foot trucks.


Andalex project manager Dave Shaver downplays such concerns. Central Utah already hosts six to eight times the number of trucks Andalex proposes, without major problems, he says. Most of the mine's direct impacts would be underground, he adds, and the surface facilities would only damage about 40 acres already disturbed by previous prospecting activities.


"The amount of environmental regulation we have to comply with is incredible," Shaver says. Besides paying for and complying with the environmental impact statement, he says, the company must completely reshape and re-seed the 40-acre area, then monitor it for an additional 30 years.


Iron County commissioner R.L. Gardner supports the mine for the jobs and money it would bring to southwestern Utah. He points to an economic analysis that Utah's planning office completed for the BLM in 1993. The report says the mine could bring 1,400 residents to southern Utah and directly employ 455 people while increasing the earnings of Utah residents $12.2 million each year. Meanwhile, state economists project road repair and upgrade costs would run between $20-$40 million, less than half Cohen's estimate.


Ken Rait calls the 1993 study unrealistic, since no one knows whether markets really exist for the Kaiparowits coal. Rait also says Utah BLM chief Jim Parker illegally suspended requirements for Andalex to develop its leases within 10 years back in 1991. The move gave the company time to market its coal and wait for a new port in Los Angeles, he says. Builders plan to complete the port "which Andalex has invested in - by 1997.


BLM officials say Parker granted the extension to allow the agency time to complete its extensive impact study. But Rait says agency guidelines specifically bar extensions to meet National Environmental Policy Act requirements. "Without the suspension the mine never could have happened," he says. "Parker handed Andalex its mine on a silver platter."


Andalex's Shaver believes the BLM has an obligation to provide coal from the public domain. "The only reason Andalex is mining coal is because society demands it," he says. Coal provides 60 percent of the nation's power, he says, and the Department of Energy expects coal consumption to double within 35 years.


But Rait believes the costs are too high. There are substitutes for Kaiparowits coal in central Utah, he says, but "there are no substitutes for the wilderness value of this area."


For more information, contact the BLM, 318 N. 100 East, Kanab, UT 84741 (801/644-2672). SUWA's address is 1471 S. 1100 E., Salt Lake City, UT 84105.





* Katherine Bill





The writer is a former HCN intern.