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County commissioners now support Arch Coal’s mine expansion

Letter to U.S. Forest Services changed from “We cannot support unless” to “We do support it.”

By Toni Todd

The Gunnison County commissioners recently ratified a letter to the United States Forest Service in support of Arch Coal’s request to add 1,722 acres to its current lease in order to expand mining operations at the West Elk Mine in Somerset.

An earlier draft of the letter required the coal company to capture the methane gas generated by the mine before county support would be given. Commissioner Phil Chamberland was not comfortable with the forcefulness of the original ultimatum. So, the letter was reworded.

“The final letter states that the BoCC supports the lease modification with the stipulation that Arch Coal and the county will work out an agreement to figure out what has to be done to capture methane from the mine and put it to beneficial use rather than venting it,” said Chamberland. “Arch Coal has stated that they want to work with us on this, so we will move forward to see if we can make this happen.”

Chamberland added, “There were only a few changes made to the [original draft] letter but basically it was changed from [something like], “We cannot support unless” to “We do support it.”

Commissioner John Messner said the prospect of working with Arch Coal shows great promise not only for reducing the amount of gas escaping today from the West Elk Mine, but for applying the technology to sections of the mine that are no longer producing coal. The idea, he said, is not just to contain the methane now, for what’s being produced now, but to expand that, and keep it going once the mine is finally closed. “We’ve still got 40 years of methane” that will continue to vent into the atmosphere, whether the mine is open or closed, he said.

Messner acknowledged the naysayers’ view that, methane aside, more coal mining is not the answer. The coal brought out of the expanded area will be burned and will contribute more greenhouse gases. However, he noted, even if the mine were closed today, it makes sense to work with Arch Coal cooperatively to develop a way to capture the gas going forward.

“I think we’ve got an opportunity to find a comprehensive approach for North Fork methane capture,” Messner said. “The ultimate goal is permanent methane capture.”

It’s possible, Messner added, that capture of methane in the North Fork could become a pilot project that ultimately spreads to coal mines nationwide.

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