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Commissioners to submit coal mining regulation comments

Methane capture, contemporaneous reclamation, and environmental impact mitigation among chief concerns

by Crystal Kotowski

The Gunnison County Board of County Commissioners is weighing in on the management and oversight of coal mining.

The commissioners received a letter in February from the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) requesting comments on the oversight process for the coal regulatory and inactive mines regulatory programs. It is part of an annual review process conducted by the DOI, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety (DRMS).

County manager Matthew Birnie noted that he didn’t “believe we have been asked to comment on OSMRE’s oversight before.”

At the end of each evaluation period, OSMRE writes reports addressing DRMS’s effectiveness in implementing its coal regulatory and inactive mine reclamation programs. The Annual Evaluation Summary Reports are accessible through the OSMRE website.

“I feel comfortable with the way the letter reads. It states what we need,” said commissioner Phil Chamberland, during a review of the draft letter.

The commissioners’ one-page letter focuses on methane capture, reclamation efforts, and environmental protection. It began with the request to ensure that land reclamation is contemporaneous and successful—and that “in each instance, there be transparent, regular and documented monitoring, with established reclamation metrics—all financed by a security mechanism to ensure completion.”

The letter applauded the efforts made to ensure that the DRMS coal regulatory process prevented offsite impacts to land and water adjacent to mine permit areas, asking for “more information on protection (e.g. programs, regulations, standards and rulemakings) of domestic wells, agricultural crop and livestock waters, and waters used by wildlife and recreationists,” so as to assist the commissioners in understanding the scope, reach and efficacy of its actions.

Continuing with their support for methane capture, the commissioners requested in the letter that “all reasonable measures be employed to ensure immediate, short-term and long-term effective capture and beneficial use of methane.”

“The caveat with [methane capture’s] feasibility is the infrastructure. But we can leave that to the Office of Surface Mining to figure out,” commissioner Chamberland noted. “You look at Oxbow—that is currently in reclamation, and that was done while it was still active.”

“If you talk to Tom Vessels [the owner of Denver-based Vessels Coal Gas], the closed mines are actually more productive with methane gas, because they aren’t venting gas,” county manager Matthew Birnie added.

Aspen Skiing Company partnered with Oxbow Corp.’s Elk Creek Mine in 2016 to convert waste methane into 24 million kilowatt hours of power, enough to fuel all of Aspen Skiing’s four ski areas, 13 restaurants and three hotels, according to the Denver Post. With development costs of $5.4 million, it is the nation’s first such large-scale project. Tom Vessels built the system.

Comments were due March 30 to OSMRE, Denver Field Division.

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