Conservationists celebrate, look for better methane capture plans
By Katherine Nettles
High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) is celebrating a big victory in conservation efforts since a federal judge ruled on November 8 to block the West Elk Coal Mine’s plans to expand by 2,000 acres into the Gunnison National Forest’s Sunset Roadless Area.
The now-halted mining plan had approved 8.4 miles of new roads, 43 new methane-venting wells and almost 18 million tons of new coal over three years. The U.S. Forest Service estimated that the proposed expansion would release approximately 11.91 million tons of methane to the atmosphere.
Mining was scheduled to begin in January 2020 in the Sunset Roadless Area, a part of the North Fork Valley. The U.S. Department of Interior had approved the mine expansion in March, and in July HCCA and a coalition of other regional and federal environmental organizations filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior to have the decision vacated.
HCCA alleged that the agency decision failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—a statute designed to ensure public participation and transparent decision-making by federal agencies—and the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires the consideration of alternatives.
The federal court agreed. Judge R. Brooke Jackson said the Department of the Interior violated federal law by failing to consider an alternative for flaring methane and failed to properly consider new information about the potential effects on streams in the project area.
Arch Coal, Inc., which owns West Elk Mine, is to halt all activity, including its well drilling and road building in the area, until it conducts further analysis and addresses the deficiencies in its plan. This decision was the final hurdle for the mine’s expansion, as HCCA public lands director Matt Reed described it. HCCA has been opposed to the project since its inception in 2010.
“It’s been long; it’s been complicated,” said Reed of the process. “This is something that we’ve been working on for a decade. The Sunset Roadless area is astonishingly beautiful and wild… and it’s insane to think that landscape could be carved up all for staggering amounts of coal. It’s a fight that HCCA has been involved in for a long time, and the fight is not over.
“It boiled down to two things,” Reed continued. “It orders the Trump administration to consider limiting methane emissions and to address potential harm to water and fish. For me, this incentivizes coal to actually explore methane capture. The reason HCCA is engaged in this is the obvious underground implications of this. But also the West Elk Coal Mine remains the largest source of methane pollution in the state,” said Reed.
Gunnison County commissioners had written a letter of support for the project to the USFS in 2017, with the stipulation that Mountain Coal Company and the county work out how to capture the methane from the mine expansion rather than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere.
“We had not seen anything from Arch Coal about that, until the 11th day at the 59th hour, and then they began discussing flaring. The ball is in their court now,” concluded Reed.
Gunnison County commissioner John Messner declined to comment on the court’s decision on Friday, but commented on the county’s part to play.
“We did create an expectation for methane capture and mitigation and/ or economic utilization in our letter of conditional support,” Messner wrote by e-mail. “We have been working with the West Elk Mine and numerous other operators, land management agencies, government entities and conservation groups towards that end as part of the North Fork Coal Mine Methane Working Group and through that collaborative work have a commitment on the public record from the West Elk Mine that they will begin capturing and flaring Coal Mine Methane on the active mine with portable flares in 2020. This is in addition to two methane capture and mitigation projects that are moving forward on abandoned and inactive mines in the North Fork Valley with two other operators. In addition the working group has been working with the [Bureau of Land Management] to try to develop federal leasing mechanisms for Coal Mine Methane to enable more projects for mitigation and/or economic use to occur on abandoned and inactive mines.”
While the decision can be appealed, there is not any indication that the Department of the Interior or the mine will pursue it. West Elk Coal Mine did not respond to the opportunity to comment.
Reed said if the mine vacates the plan entirely, the roads would ideally be rehabilitated and brought back to their natural condition. For now, HCCA and its coalition are celebrating the success of their efforts. The Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Wilderness Workshop joined HCCA in seeking judicial review.
“This decision from the judge validates our work and the work of our partners,” said Reed.
HCCA also released a statement about the decision. “It also validates our decision to challenge climate-change pollution head-on. The court’s ruling halts the mine expansion, including further road-building and well-drilling in a pristine roadless forest in Gunnison County, and High Country Conservation Advocates will continue to battle this expansion every step of the way,” according to the statement.
West Elk Coal Mine has been operating since 1981, mostly beneath public lands managed by the Forest Service.