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U.S. Forest Service approves Arch Coal’s expansion request

The decision’s not yet final; there’s still time to comment on legal grounds

by Toni Todd

The U.S. Forest Service recently approved Arch Coal’s request to expand mining operation and exploration at the West Elk Mine in Somerset. The expansion would add 1,720 acres to the mining area. The plan would allow exploratory drilling and new road construction in order to mine 17 million tons in what is now roadless forest.

Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison Nation Forest supervisor Scott Armentrout explained, “I recognize that this is a complex decision, but it is one of many similar decisions made over decades of mining in the North Fork Valley. The vast amounts of technical information and analyses contained in the SFEIS can overshadow the relatively small scale of this decision.

“Many commenters continue to point out possible new ways to look at the decision, new types of analyses that should be used, new methods to mine, etc.

“At this point, I, as the decision maker must make a choice. I have been underground in the West Elk Mine. I have hiked and viewed areas where surface impacts and reclamation have occurred on parent leases and will occur under my decision.

“I have been responsible for overall Forest Management of the entire three million plus-acre Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests for over five years and have been involved in public lands decision making for over 30 years. In making a decision such as this it would be easier if there were thresholds or confidence intervals involved that took away any uncertainty related to yet unknown locations for surface occupancy or related to greenhouse gas effects at the local, regional, national or global scales. That is simply not the case.”

Local environmentalists not surprisingly, disagreed with the decision.

“The Trump administration’s rubber-stamping of Arch Coal’s mine expansion displays its utter contempt for our national forests, our public health, and public opinion,” said Matt Reed, public lands director for High County Conservation Advocates in Crested Butte. “More than 100,000 people signed petitions and letters opposing this project for the damage it would cause to wild forests and our climate. Trump ignored them all to benefit a mine that has nearly a decade of dirty coal already under lease. This will allow Colorado’s single worst methane polluter to continue fouling the air and our climate for years to come without even seriously considering limiting that pollution. We will keep fighting to protect Colorado’s forests from this damaging proposal.”

Other groups pledging to continue opposing the plan include: Wilderness Workshop (Carbondale, Colo.), Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, and Center for Biological Diversity.

The Forest Service’s “draft record of decision” starts a 45-day period in which the public may file formal objections challenging the legal basis for the mine expansion. The groups expect to file objections. The Forest Service will have 45 days after objections are filed to rule on them and issue a final decision. If the lease expansion is approved, construction could begin in the spring of 2018.

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