HCCA celebrates major coal mine settlement agreement

Arch Coal to comply with pollution reduction, Clean Air Act 

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

A federal judge approved a settlement agreement last week that obligates one of the largest coal mines in Colorado to operate pollution control equipment and obtain and comply with a Clean Air Act permit for its operations in Gunnison County. West Elk Coal Mine is located in the West Elk Mountains between the towns of Paonia and Crested Butte, and owned by Mountain Coal Company, a subsidiary of Arch Coal. The company has also reportedly remediated its highly controversial work to clear forests and expand drill pad operations in the Sunset Roadless Area of the North Fork and abandoned those previous efforts to take advantage of an exemption granted by the U.S. Forest Service. 

This is a double win for Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), which together with WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Wilderness Workshop has challenged the mine’s expansion and the U.S. Forest Service’s allowance of it for years. After a number of legal actions, which included suing Arch Coal over illegally polluting without permits at the West Elk mine, it appears the HCCA coalition has prevailed in securing compliance with the Clean Air Act for the mining operation and protecting the Sunset Roadless Area from future road building.

Clean Air compliance settlement 

The two-year settlement agreement, approved by U.S. District Judge Raymond P. Moore on January 18, obligates Mountain Coal to both operate pollution control equipment, and obtain and comply with a Clean Air Act permit for the West Elk mine. Under Title V of the Clean Air Act, major sources cannot emit air pollutants without an operating permit. The permit requires flares that will burn mine gases, reducing methane and volatile organic compound (VOCs).

The agreement will expire after Mountain Coal has complied with the terms of its pollution permits for two years.

Matt Reed, public lands director at HCCA, commented to the Crested Butte News that the settlement is a significant step in the right direction. 

“While this doesn’t prevent coal mining at the West Elk, it does ensure that formerly voluntary methane pollution mitigation is now legally mandatory. But also critical in this settlement is that the mine is required to proceed with the Title V permitting under the Clean Air Act, which will ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act’s pollution control provisions. That’s a big deal.”

According to the HCCA, the mine emitted more than 312,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2020, which is equal to the annual emissions from nearly 68,000 vehicles.

 “Today’s agreement is a critical step forward in holding Arch Coal accountable to protecting clean air and to limiting harmful methane emissions,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, in a press release. WildEarth was one of the plaintiffs in the multi-year legal battle against the coal mine expansion and methane emissions. 

“While we ultimately need to transition completely away from coal to protect our climate, we have certainty in the meantime that the West Elk mine will be reducing harmful methane and other toxic gases.”

“The settlement will hold Arch’s feet to the fire so it gets and complies with the required permit and reduces the mine’s pollution,” said Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This settlement means tangible benefits for Colorado’s air quality, the public’s health and the climate. Protecting our health and climate also requires that we transition away from coal entirely.”

Sierra Club attorney Nathaniel Shoaff echoed those sentiments. “Today’s agreement helps protect the air we breathe and limits the climate damage that can be caused by this massive coal mine,” he said. “Fossil fuel companies shouldn’t get a free pass to bypass the Clean Air Act, and this agreement assures this will not happen at the West Elk mine.”

A new outlook for Sunset Roadless area

The HCCA coalition first filed a lawsuit in 2014 to protest the West Elk Coal Mine’s expansion into the Sunset Roadless area of the North Fork using a “North Fork Exception” granted by the Forest Service. This exemption had allowed the Mountain Coal Company to develop roads and other surface-level infrastructure to expand its mining operations on Forest Service land, despite a 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule that prohibits road construction in roadless areas. 

The Colorado Roadless rule protects more than four million acres of Roadless forests in Colorado from most road construction and commercial logging. After the coalition’s successful challenge, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS) ordered the mine to stop bulldozing a forested area in 2020 and constructing and expanding drill pads within the Sunset Roadless area.  

Then on January 12, 2022, DRMS determined that Mountain Coal had reclaimed this road and modified its mine plan to no longer include any further surface disturbance in the Roadless area. If Mountain Coal were to seek approval in the future to construct roads under its state permit, it would have to request a technical revision in a public process, according to Reed.

“However, because the North Fork Coal area exemption has been vacated, Mountain Coal no longer maintains a legal right of entry, a requirement for such a revision to be approved,” stated Reed, noting the DRMS declaration. That declaration letter asserts: “[Mountain Coal Company] does not maintain legal right of entry for the Sunset Roadless area.”

Reed believes re-implementation of the former exemption is unlikely to occur. “This is great news for the future of the Sunset Roadless area,” he said.

Arch Coal did not respond to requests for comment on abandoning Sunset Roadless expansion efforts or the settlement as of press time. 

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