Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Conservation groups say coal company built illegal road

Protest at USFS office June 16

By Mark Reaman and Katherine Nettles

Local and regional environmental groups are claiming that the owners of a Somerset coal mine have pulled a fast one and illegally built a road into the Sunset Roadless Area on the other side of Kebler Pass, despite a court order prohibiting such action.

The High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), the Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Wilderness Workshop asked Gunnison County commissioners Tuesday to halt the Mountain Coal Company (a subsidiary of Arch Resources) decision to bulldoze roads in the roadless area. County officials are gathering more information before deciding on what, if any, action to pursue.

HCCA public lands director Matt Reed is incensed at the action. “The coal company flouted a court order earlier this year that reinstated a ban on road construction there,” he said. “The Trump Administration is allowing the destruction despite the court order. The irreplaceable wild forest and wildlife habitat of the North Fork Valley are permanently scarred by this illegal road building in the Sunset Roadless Area. This is the latest in a string of brazen attacks on our public lands by the Trump Administration.

“According to those who have spoken with Forest Service officials, Arch Resources had apparently been assured by high-level Trump Administration officials that the Forest Service wouldn’t interfere,” Reed continued.

“Arch Resources has used the period between the March appeals court ruling and before the district court has issued the required order to bulldoze at least a mile of road in the Sunset Roadless Area.”

On March 2, 2020, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by adopting the North Fork Exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule without considering a reasonable alternative that would have protected an additional roadless area from the impacts of coal mining. But because of the COVID-19 situation, no official action was taken until Monday, June 15 when the District Court officially entered the order vacating the North Fork Exception allowing the building of roads. Reed said Mountain Coal took advantage of that lag time to illegally build the road.

In a letter to Gunnison County commissioners submitted June 16, HCCA and other conservation groups wrote, “Mountain Coal’s attorney has stated that the company intends to construct about twice as much road as it has already bulldozed in the Sunset Roadless Area during the 2020 construction season. Mountain Coal also imminently plans to conduct further surface disturbance to construct the five drilling pads accessible only using the completed road segment. Mountain Coal uses these half-acre pads to drill wells to vent methane when mining occurs underground.“

Gunnison County commissioners discussed the issue on a preliminary basis during their weekly meeting on Tuesday morning. County attorney David Baumgarten offered a brief history of the legalities involved.

“During the hiatus between the District Court vacation and the decision from the Court of Appeals, the road was built,” he said.

Baumgarten advised commissioners of some things they could do, beginning first with instructing the county attorney’s office to contact all the various parties, get their positions and present a full picture of the situation. He also suggested they could take part in a site visit from staff, and last, have potential involvement in court proceedings. He and deputy county attorney Matthew Hoyt both advised commissioners not to take that latter route at this point. Baumgarten said that move would be premature.

Hoyt said on Monday the District Court ordered the defendants to respond to the plaintiff’s motion to enforce a remedy for the alleged violations to the court order. “And that response is not due until June 22,” he explained. “My prediction is that the judge is not going to decide on that motion until later in June or mid-July at the earliest.”

Commissioner John Messner agreed that it would be best to have both attorneys put together information about the groups involved, including the coal mine, the U.S. Forest Service and the Gunnison County positions taken in the past and how they might all benefit most from the situation. “We will not have a clear idea of what the court’s position is until later,” concluded Hoyt.

U.S. Forest Service public affairs officer with the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests Kimberlee Phillips responded to a Crested Butte News query about the situation stating, “Currently the West Elk Mine is under litigation and we cannot comment on active litigation.”

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