Colorado: Forest Service challenged anew over approval of a coal mine expansion in roadless area

Beaver ponds in the Sunset roadless area. Photo courtesy Earthjustice.

Showdown over West Elk coal mine could be a test for Colorado roadless rule

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A long-running battle over a coal mine expansion in a national forest roadless area continues, as conservation groups this week challenged U.S. Forest Service approval of a coal mine expansion 10 miles east of Paonia.

According to Earthjustice, the mine project could ultimately result in construction more than six miles of roads, along with 48 natural gas drilling pads within the Sunset roadless area, one of the areas exempted from a road-building ban under a newly adopted roadless rule for national forest lands in Colorado.

“The Sunset Roadless Area is real gem, a beautiful forest of aspen and giant spruce, beaver lodges and meadows, a home for elk and bear,” said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for Earthjustice, the public interest environmental law firm representing the groups.  “This is a place the Forest Service should be protecting for all Coloradoans, not sacrificing to appease special interests.”

Sunset Roadless area slideshow

The challenged to the mine expansion may be a first test for the Colorado roadless rule, adopted by the Obama administration in July. The rule identifies several tiers of roadless areas, including some “untouchable” tract with high conservation values. It also includes exemptions in some areas for activities like mining, logging and water development.

Conservation groups said those exemptions mean that at least some of Colorado’s national forest roadless lands have less protection than those in other states, protected under a national roadless rule.

Conservation groups won a first appeal in February 2012 overturning the Forest Service’s initial approval of this expansion, when regional Forest Service officials ruled that the agency didn’t follow its own regulations or adhere to environmental laws in approving the project.

The Forest Service again approved the mining expansion in August with an updated environmental study, but conservation advocates say the new study still falls short, claiming in their latest appeal that the approval violates laws meant to protect wildlife, air quality, and forest lands.

“This is a lose-lose-lose proposition,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy coordinator for WildEarth Guardians.  “The public loses their mountain backcountry, loses millions of dollars from wasted methane, and loses because of more coal pollution. It’s time the Forest Service stood up to Big Coal and said ‘no’ to this kind of destructive expansion,” Nichols said.

Energy industry advocates said the approval is based on the consensus reached on roadless area management in Colorado.

“Three different Colorado governors of both political parties, endorsed the Colorado Roadless Rule. In doing so they brought together the natural gas industry, coal business , ski industry and countless others to achieve a compromise few thought possible,” said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

“Doing this meant working together constructively, and in good faith. Unfortunately the path of good faith wasn’t chosen by all, and there are some who will always choose divisive hyperbole  over thoughtful compromise,” Ludlam said.

The Sunset roadless area is adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness Area, and conservation groups are worried that the mine expansion will turn the area into an industrial zone. Under the expansion, Arch Coal could build up to 16 well pads and two miles of road per square mile, according to the appeal, filed on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, High Country Citizens’ Alliance Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Wild and Defenders of Wildlife.

Additional concerns are focused on methane pollution from the  West Elk coal mine, already one of the state’s single largest carbon polluters.

Although the West Elk coal mine is underground, safe mining there requires that methane venting wells be drilled above the mine.  The West Elk mine spews millions of cubic feet of methane pollution every day.  Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times more heat trapping ability than carbon dioxide.

Forest Service and EPA data show the amount of methane vented at West Elk could heat a city about the size of Grand Junction.  But the Forest Service has refused to require the mine to capture, burn, or reduce any of the mine’s methane pollution.

“Why would the Forest Service sacrifice one of Colorado’s few remaining wild, roadless areas, just to mine for more dirty coal, further sacrificing air quality and public health for more Coloradans?  This proposal makes absolutely no sense, it should be abandoned immediately,” said Roger Singer,  a senior Sierra Club representative in Colorado.

In supporting the mine expansion, Arch Coal argued that bulldozing miles of road and clearing scores of acres of natural lands for well pads would not harm the forest because the trees were old and would probably die soon anyway.


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