Colorado, Forest Service looking for compromise
While the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) continues to dicker with the federal government about the rules applied inside inventoried roadless areas (IRA), the coal miners of the North Fork Valley of Gunnison County are getting nervous.
Today, the Elk Creek Mine is one of three mines in the Valley that collectively employ more than 1,000 workers and pumped $1,085,000 in severance tax money into county coffers last year.
Their bituminous coal is seeing a resurgence of popularity in places throughout the country, like Tennessee and New England, which are in need of affordable high-quality, low-sulfur coal to burn in order to meet increasingly stringent environmental standards.
But as mining operations continue in the area, coal reserves diminish and the search is on for new areas to mine. Some of the most desirable seams of coal are under inventoried roadless areas, however, and surface access necessary to install safety measures, like vent holes, are pretty much out of the question, at least for now.
The DNR released a draft Colorado Roadless Rule in August 2009 that makes allowances for certain activities in roadless areas by coal mines, oil and gas operations and ski resorts—three of Colorado’s biggest industries.
The state was hoping it could establish its own rules, much like Idaho had done during the Bush administration, allowing the state to write industry-friendly language into its own roadless rules. But the Obama administration doesn’t want to see that happen without first having a say.
The federal 2001 Roadless Rule, which was enacted in the last days of the Clinton administration, makes few allowances for industry and aims to keep roadless areas as some of the last pristine places in the national forest system. That rule has simultaneously been upheld and overturned by the federal courts.
In response to the conflicting court cases, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, issued an “interim directive” restricting all activities in roadless areas that aren’t approved by the Forest Service. That directive will stand until “long term roadless policy is developed and relevant court cases move forward,” according to the USDA.
That means the coal mines of the North Fork Valley will be working within their permit boundary and outside of roadless areas until the Obama administration and the DNR can reach some consensus, instead of creating a patchwork of regulation inside the Rocky Mountain region.
During a tour of the West Elk Mine in Somerset last year, the company’s vice-president, Jim Cooper, pointed to a part of the map where he hoped the mine could expand. “For this little bit here, we don’t even have to be on the surface. That’s not going to increase our production levels,” he said.
However some surface activity would be necessary in the Springhouse Park IRA in order to drill holes that vent methane, a highly volatile gas that is released during the coal mining process, and keep the miners below safe.
Cooper said during the Bush administration, the mine had applied for access to the IRA to drill the holes and permission was granted. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made its decision to return the rule to its Clinton-era form, access was again denied.
Now the mine is facing the same trouble in two areas it had hoped to expand into at the end of last year, areas that are also in the Springhouse Park IRA.
Such a blow to the operation means that the mine might have to stop operations before the end of the current mining plan in 2014-2016. Cooper said at the time that waiting for a different political atmosphere to appeal the decision could be the mine’s best hope for expansion, but that waiting can be expensive for a mine with an operational cost of $400,000 per day.
If the mine were to stop operating four years early, it would disassemble its operation and go elsewhere, Cooper says, leaving a gaping whole in the county’s tax base.
The roadless rule being negotiated between DNR and the U.S. Forest Service would try to find some middle ground between environmental conservation and the economic benefit derived from large industries that rely on the National Forest system.
According to the DNR, the purpose of creating a roadless rule of its own is “to provide, within the context of multiple use management, state-specific direction for the protection of roadless areas on National Forest System lands in Colorado.”
But not everyone thinks the 2001 Roadless Rule is flawed.
“We support the 2001 Roadless Rule,” says High Country Citizens’ Alliance Executive Director Dan Morse. “As a rule it provides all of the protections for roadless areas that we think are important. That is the rule in effect now and we think it will be in effect when this is finished.”
Morse said he thought the dangers of methane in underground mines could be addressed under the 2001 Roadless Rule with a little creativity.
“We don’t want to endanger miners at all,” he said. “The safety of miners can be dealt with under the 2001 rule without just carving those areas out of the roadless inventory. It’s really more a question of if there could be impact on certain coal mines and certain portions of the coal mines.”
No date has been set for when the USDA directive might be lifted and a new, comprehensive roadless rule will be enacted. Miners in the North Fork Valley will still be going to work on Monday.