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Forest Service decision will allow West Elk Mine Expansion

“A lose-lose-lose proposition”

Last week the U.S. Forest Service upheld a decision that allows Arch Coal to expand its West Elk Mine. The company first applied for two lease modifications totaling just over 1,700 acres in 2009. But the planned expansion extends into the Sunset Roadless Area about 10 miles east of Paonia, and environmental groups have been filing consistent appeals.


The High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA), Earthjustice, Wild Earth Guardians, and the Sierra Club filed their first appeal in December 2011 after the Forest Service issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact.” The groups argued that the Forest Service had not properly addressed protections for lynx and bald eagles, and did not address measures to prevent landslides.
 The groups initially won their appeal, but the passage of the Colorado Roadless Rule in July this year opened the door to expansion once again. HCCA’s public lands director, Matt Reed, explained, “The Colorado Roadless Rule has an exemption that has weaker standards than the National Roadless Rule. Twenty thousand acres identified as roadless in the National Roadless Rule are exempted from the Colorado rule. They’re still roadless, but the mining companies can put in roads and methane drainage wells, and keep those in for the life of the mine.”
After the adoption of the Colorado Roadless Rule, the Forest Service approved the lease modifications for the West Elk Mine in August. Environmental groups appealed that decision in September, and the Forest Service’s latest decision against that appeal gives Arch Coal the ability to put six and a half miles of road and 48 natural gas drilling pads across three square miles of roadless forest.
In a press release, climate and energy coordinator for Wild Earth Guardians Jeremy Nichols calls the ruling “a lose-lose-lose proposition.” Reed agrees.
“The public loses these wild roadless lands, we lose methane into the atmosphere and we’re also losing royalties that could be captured on that methane,” Reed said. “There’s a lot of concern in the North Fork about oil and gas development, but at the same time coal mining companies are allowed to release methane into the atmosphere.”
The coalition of environmental groups is considering its options moving forward, but West Elk Mine representatives say the expansion will allow the mine to recover an additional 26 million tons of coal. Last April, representative Weston Norris told the Board of County Commissioners the modifications would extend the life of the mine and help keep 378 high-paying jobs in Colorado and the North Fork Valley.
Norris also told the commissioners that the company had hoped to start exploratory drilling during the summer of 2012. “The appeal and the process following delayed this project by a minimum of a year,” he said.

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