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Nearby coal lease expansion proposal in public comment phase

July 24 cutoff date

By Mark Reaman

Public comment is being taken on a proposal to expand coal mining near Somerset, Colo., on the other side of Kebler Pass.

The U.S. Forest Service, along with cooperating agencies, Bureau of Land Management, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, and Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety this week announced the availability of the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for two federal coal lease modifications and an on-lease exploration plan for West Elk Coal Mine, located near Somerset on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.

Arkland Company, LLC and Mountain Coal Company requested the modifications to expand their existing federal coal leases by a total 1,720 acres to ensure coal reserves are not bypassed. The 45-day public comment period began June 9 and ends July 24.

The analysis considers three alternatives in detail, including a no-action alternative; an alternative that would consent to only one lease modification; and an alternative that would consent to both lease modifications, the agencies’ preferred alternative.

According to a Forest Service press release, the purpose of the federal agencies’ actions is to facilitate recovery of federal coal resources in an environmentally sound manner.

Most of the area being analyzed is part of the Sunset Colorado Roadless Area under the Colorado Roadless Rule; however, it is situated within the North Fork Coal Mining Exception Area, which provides for construction of temporary roads and other short-term disturbances related to underground coal mining.

Environmentalists—local, regional and national—are not happy with the proposal.

“This coal mine expansion proposal brings Trump’s dirty energy agenda to Colorado,” said Matt Reed, public lands director for Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “Pristine forests, abundant wildlife, clean water, and a healthy snowpack are the cornerstones of our local economy and quality of life, and this destructive proposal threatens all of these values.”

Reed said under the plan, more than six miles of roads will be bulldozed and as many as 48 drilling pads with vents to release methane will be built in the Sunset Roadless Area, which is adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness. The area is a rolling landscape of aspen and spruce-fir forests that provide habitat for black bear, elk, lynx and cutthroat trout.

“Bulldozing important aspen groves to mine coal and vent methane into the atmosphere is exactly the sort of senseless destruction we’ve come to expect from the Trump administration,” said Allison Melton, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But it’s madness for the climate and a raw deal for the people of Colorado, and we’re not going to sit still and let it happen.”

The lease the Forest Service is poised to approve will give Arch Coal access to more than 17 million tons of coal, extending the life of the West Elk mine by about three or four years. The company already has an estimated 10-year supply of coal under lease. The West Elk Mine was the single largest industrial source of methane pollution in Colorado from 2013 to 2015, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.

“While Arch Coal and the U.S. Forest Service may feel the political winds have shifted in their favor recently with the Trump administration, the harsh reality of this polluting coal mining expansion proposal remains the same,” said Jim Alexee, director of the Colorado Sierra Club. “These coal mining operations and the associated road construction will cause irreparable harm to our local air quality, to our climate, and to the wildlife living in the Sunset Roadless Area.”

Comments must be received by July 24 to be considered. Comments can be submitted by mail, faxed or electronically:

Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests

Attn: Forest Supervisor

2250 Hwy. 50

Delta, CO 81416

Fax: (970) 871-6698

https://cara.ecosystemmanagement.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=32459

The SDEIS as well as other related project documents are available for public viewing online: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=32459.

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