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Appellate court dismisses greens' lawsuit over Navajo coal mine, Four Corners

Three judges recently agreed with a lower court's ruling to dismiss a lawsuit from environmental groups against various governmental agencies over their role in reauthorizing mining activities at a New Mexican coal mine.

Several environmental organizations sued the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and U.S. Department of the Interior, among other agencies, alleging they had violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in approving a 25-year lease extension to operate the Four Corners power plant and strip mining expansion for the Navajo coal mine.

A U.S. district judge dismissed the case in 2017 after citing the Navajo tribe's sovereign immunity. Three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court, writing in a July 29 opinion that the Navajo Nation-owned Navajo Transitional Energy Co. LLC, which co-owns the Four Corners plant that exclusively receives coal from the mine, "has a legally protected interest in the subject matter of this suit that would be impaired in its absence."

"The panel reasoned that if plaintiffs succeeded in their challenge and the agency actions were vacated, the Navajo Transitional Energy Company's interest in the existing lease, rights-of-way, and surface mining permits would be impaired," according to the court's opinion. "Without the proper approvals, the Mine could not operate, and the Navajo Nation would lose a key source of revenue in which the Navajo Transitional Energy Company had already substantially invested."

Because the company is effectively an arm of the Navajo Nation created to purchase the mine, it also enjoys immunity from the lawsuit, the court stated. It also held that no other party could adequately represent the company's interest and agreed that it was a party that must take part in the case.

While the federal defendants may hold similar views to the company at this point in the litigation, those defendants could not adequately represent the company in the case because Navajo Transitional Energy's interests far exceed the government's, the court stated. The parties' interests could also diverge later in the litigation.

As a result, the higher court agreed that the litigation could not continue without the company and dismissed the case.

Navajo Transitional Energy Co., or NTEC, CEO Clark Moseley said in a statement that he was pleased with the court's decision to affirm the Navajo nation's self-determination.

"We are always concerned with outside groups or influences attempting to force their views on the Navajo," he said. "With this decision, NTEC can continue to provide economic opportunities for the Navajo people, secure funding for the operation of the Navajo Nation, and promote transitional energy opportunities."

The Sierra Club and Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, both plaintiffs in the case, did not respond to a request for comment as of this article's publication.