County will likely support exception to roadless area

It is some of the cleanest coal in the world

by Mark Reaman

The Gunnison County commissioners will send a letter to the U.S. Forest Service supporting analysis in a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) about whether to reinstate the North Fork Coal Mining Exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule. They will vote on the final content of the letter at the Tuesday, May 19 meeting.

At a Tuesday, May 12 work session the commissioners appeared inclined to support the exception with caveats. They want the Forest Service to consider in its EIS analysis the viability of the coal mining industry in the North Fork; they want to encourage opportunities to recover methane from active and inactive mines in the area; and they want analysis of the quantity and quality of recreational tourism in the North Fork coal mining area. The specific exception would allow for “temporary road construction for coal exploration and/or coal-related surface activities in a 19,000-acre area.”

County attorney David Baumgarten went over the history of the commissioners and their stand on the coal area. In the past, the county has designated that region as the North Fork Valley Coal Resource Special Area and recognized that “coal is a resource valuable to the United States, Colorado, and Gunnison County that deserves to be extracted and put to use.”


Baumgarten said the county has also historically supported options to capture and use methane and has consistently stated the need for a balance between coal mining in that area and potential tourism.

“I crafted a draft letter without a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the proposal,” Baumgarten told the commissioners.

“Coal is being phased out as an energy source but that won’t happen over night,” said commissioner Phil Chamberland. “The coal being mined in the North Fork is high-quality coal. When it comes to carbon emissions it doesn’t put out as much compared to other coal. The county realizes that coal will be gone over there and we have started to look for other sources of revenue. Natural gas is the new coal. It is part of the transition. Both are here for the next several decades until a replacement is found.

“People have said this exception was a loophole but that’s not right,” continued Chamberland. “A lot of people representing various groups were part of the roadless exception decision. It was an appropriate decision. Plus in the long-term, those roads will be reclaimed.”

Commissioner Jonathan Houck agreed with that summation. “It wasn’t only industry people at the table back then,” he said. “The rule was crafted with a lot of input from a lot of stakeholders. It is important to strike a balance. I, too, would like to see them capture methane and be aware of the tourism opportunities.

“Coal is going away but it remains in our immediate future,” he continued. “The product in the North Fork is some of the highest quality anywhere.”

“It’s the cleanest coal in the world,” added commissioner Paula Swenson. “Looking at the environment holistically in the world, it would be a shame not to use this resource. We’re moving away from coal but we aren’t there yet.”

Swenson also pointed out the economic viability of coal in the county, stating that recent surveys show those working in the coal industry make a lot more money than those in Gunnison County working in tourism. “We need to look for a holistic balance,” she said. “It is about balance and responsibility.”

Swenson said the county received many comments over the issue and the board took them all into consideration. On Tuesday, High Country Conservation Advocates executive director Michele Simpson reminded the commissioners that coal has a negative impact on climate change. “We encourage the commissioners to protect the county’s snowpack and lush pastures,” she said. “We are asking that the county keep the coal under the roadless area and in the ground. Protect the community and the local economy in the long run.”

Gunnison resident Steve Schechter is adamantly against expanding any coal leases. He listed the impacts from climate change already being experienced in the area, including shorter winters and less water. “It is time for Gunnison County to get off fossil fuels and the reliance on fossil fuel taxes,” he said.

Westin Norris and Kathy Welt, environmental engineers with the West Elk Mine, implored the commissioners to support the roadless exception. Norris pointed out that the mine contributed a $38 million payroll to the area, with average salaries and benefits amounting to $104,000 per employee. The mine paid Gunnison County $3 million in property taxes last year.

“The West Elk Mine has a huge impact on the Western Slope and Gunnison County,” Norris said. “And keep in mind that more than 60 percent of the electricity used in the county comes from coal-fired plants. And to say that global climate change is hinging on the coal coming from the West Elk Mine is not right. It is a drop in the bucket.”

Welt said the company has “won many awards for our reclamation work. We are not a slip-shod operation,” Welt said. “This exception was no loophole. It was a well thought-out, reasoned exception. We have been there 32 years and honestly we won’t be there for many more decades.”

“Times do change as far as the issue goes,” countered Sue Navy. “The Bank of America is reducing its exposure from coal in an effort to help mitigate climate change. If Bank of America can change its paradigm, so can we. I’d urge you to reconsider.”

Butch Clark also asked the commissioners to reconsider support. But he said if they were going to be in favor, they should include a provision to utilize the latest resources to capture the methane released from coal mines.

Comments are due to the Forest Service by Thursday, May 21. The commissioners will officially approve a letter to the Forest Service at the May 19 meeting.

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