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CARRYING COALS TO FLAGSTAFF

Environmentalists in Flagstaff are having the same nightmare these days: Huge coal trucks rumble into town from Utah--six per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They drop off their sooty loads beneath a 94-foot-high loading tower east of town. At any one time, as much as 20,000 tons of coal sit uncovered in a giant pile, the swirling black dust obscuring the nearby mountains.

It's horrifying, but it's not exactly a fantasy, as local activists discovered last week. It's a proposal by Andalex Resource Corporation of Utah, a coal-mining company hunting for a town that will allow it to set up this gargantuan operation.

Nearly 200 people jammed City Hall last week for the second public meeting on the proposal. "Ugly" and "brutal" were the words two spectators used to describe the forum. "It's an opportunity to call each other names in three minutes or less," says Grand Canyon Trust spokesperson Jim Ruch.

The debate is a familiar one in rural Arizona: jobs versus the environment. "It's a train on wheels," Jacque Seronde, a local environmental activist, says of the coal-transfer proposal. "This is Flagstaff, not Allentown."

Mayor Chris Bavasi points out that although Flagstaff didn't seek out Andalex's coal-transfer station, the city should take a hard look at the economic benefits before discouraging the company from coming.

The company wants to truck coal from a proposed mine located between Kanab, Utah, and Lake Powell to a dumping station in Flagstaff. The coal would be loaded into rail cars and sent to Los Angeles, from where it would be shipped to Japan and other Pacific Rim countries. The mine probably wouldn't open for five more years. Andalex needs to complete an environmental impact statement before it can start digging.

Part of that process is to get a commitment from Flagstaff or another town along the rail line to prove to regulators that the company has a plan for shipping the coal.

That commitment didn't emerge from the most recent meeting in Flagstaff. The city council voted to send a letter saying the town likes the economic benefits, but there are environmental questions that need to be answered.

The debate extends far beyond Flagstaff. Two environmental groups, the Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust, want to kill the mine proposal because the coal digging would threaten a proposed federal wilderness area and undermine clean-energy policies. The proposed mine borders the Wahweap wilderness study area, and a Utah congressman has drafted legislation to make that area federally protected.

"Think globally and act locally," has become a local rallying cry. "This is more than just a tired cliche," says Dave Lampkin, a Sierra Club spokesperson. "This is a textbook example to do exactly that. We have got to participate in something that has global implications."

But Flagstaff leaders, including the city's economic development committee, say there are a few local implications that need consideration. In a town where tourism is a major meal ticket and new industry is courted, they want to check out how much money it could mean to the city. (A bed-board-and-booze tax was recently passed to fund a program to attract new industry.)

"This is a difficult market," says Mayor Bavasi. "We're no different from most communities in the Southwest. And we're all trying to attract the same companies."

Andalex, based in Price, Utah, has promised that it would spend approximately $10 million to build the facility, recruit at least twenty locals to transfer the coal from trucks to train cars and hire up to 200 truck drivers from the area. These jobs, the company has claimed, each would pay between $30,000 and $40,000 per year.

"We're competing against every other community in the Southwest for jobs and industry," the mayor says. "In Flagstaff, jobs paying $30,000 to $40,000 are nothing to sneeze at. Those are good jobs."

Environmentalists say a coal-transfer operation is not the answer--especially if the city still intends to attract tourism and clean industry.

"Of course we need jobs," Lampkin says. "But I don't think this is the kind of industry Flagstaff ought to attract. The city has made some significant steps to make it one of the most desirable places to live. This is not the kind of business that moves us in that direction."--

"This is Flagstaff, not Allentown.

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J. W. Casserly