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SALT LAKE CITY -- Gov. Gary Herbert's campaign deposited a $10,000 check the same day the governor met with the leaders of the coal mining company. It appears that state regulators sped up the approval process shortly thereafter, but Herbert's office denies there's any connection.
The mine just outside the town of Alton would be the state's first strip mine, or surface mine, for coal. It's controversial -- more than 100 truckloads of coal would leave Alton every day, and the mine would be 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park.
The Coal Hollow Project could potentially produce 2 million tons of coal annually. -Alton Coal Development, LLC
The donation from Alton Coal Development LLC was revealed in a Jan. 11 filing by Herbert's political-action committee. A Panguitch shop owner characterized the payment as a blatant effort by the coal developer to influence a decision by the Herbert administration.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out," said Bobbi Bryant, owner of the gift and coffee shop Bronco Bobbi's, who said she was opposed to the strip mine because the operation would send coal trucks as often as 300 times a day through the small tourist town about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City.
"There's a lot more people down here against it than officials want you to know," she said.
Last fall, Alton Coal Development company gave the governor's campaign $10,000. The governor's records show it arrived in the mail Sept. 13, and the campaign office deposited it on Sep. 17.
That same day, the governor had a private meeting with Alton Coal. The state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining then approved the company's application Oct. 15 -- three months ahead of a deadline set by law.
The director of Oil, Gas and Mining, John Baza, attended the meeting with the governor. He says the mining company did complain to the governor the approval process was moving too slowly, but even before the meeting, Baza says his staff had a target date of Oct. 15.
"I wouldn't say it was speeded up," Baza says. "I certainly encouraged our staff that this was at a high level of attention now, and that we needed to complete our processes and wrap them up as quickly as possible."
Baza says by "high level of attention," he meant the governor.
But a memo from staff scientist Priscilla Burton, the team leader, states that Alton Coal "had an audience with the governor on September 17, 2009, with the result that the permitting process will end on October 15, 2009."
Burton told KSL News by phone she had expected it to take up to 90 days longer, but her bosses told her the governor wanted approval or denial by Oct. 15. So, her team set aside other work and speeded it up, doing everything they would have done anyway, except quicker.
"I think maybe it was speeded up. Maybe the staff felt like the director was putting some pressure on them to get their job done," Baza says. "I think that's obviously part of what we have to do as an administrative agency to make sure we're doing things as quickly and correctly as possible."
In fact, he says the governor stressed everything should be done right, in accordance with the rules.
Meanwhile, the governor's spokeswoman says the timing of the contribution and the meeting is just a convergence of events, and the governor did not push the regulators.
"He wasn't aware of the contribution," spokeswoman Angie Welling says. "He didn't direct. He didn't ask. He didn't pressure in any way."
Welling says the company gave the contribution, not for special favors, but because they support the governor's pro-energy views.
Herbert "is a longtime supporter of energy development in the state of Utah, particularly coal development and clean coal technology," Welling told the AP in one of a series of e-mails Wednesday. "As such, it should not be surprising that a company such as Alton Coal would choose to support Governor Herbert."
The company statement stresses all pertinent laws have been followed and it projects big economic benefits, including 160 jobs. The mining permit has been challenged by critics, so a public hearing is expected later.
Story compiled with contributions from John Hollenhorst and The Associated Press.