Obama administration accused of roadless-rule reversal in Colorado coal mine case

By David O. Williams
Real AspenNovember 10, 2011
The United States Forest Service (USFS) Tuesday gave the green light to a 1,700-acre expansion of the West Elk coal mine 10 miles east of Paonia on Colorado's Western Slope.

West Elk owner Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, Mo., praised the decision for its job-saving potential. Environmental groups blasted the USFS ruling for its possible industrialization of the pristine Sunset Trail roadless area adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness Area.

The Sunset Trail roadless area.

While the West Elk mine expansion would be mostly underground, Arch Coal would have to construct up to 48 well pads and 6.5 miles of roads in the Sunset Trail area in order to vent methane gas from the mine.

“The 350 employees at our West Elk mine are grateful that the Forest Service has decided to allow these coal reserves to be leased,” Arch Coal spokesman Greg Schaefer said of Tuesday's expansion approval. “This decision will help ensure that the West Elk mine can continue to produce high-quality, super-compliance coal and sustain high-paying jobs in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado.”

But Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski questioned the USFS ruling so soon after the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2001 National Roadless Rule, which prohibits road construction on more than 4 million acres of inventoried federal roadless land in Colorado.

“The Forest Service is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” Zukoski said. “The administration should not be paving the way for an incursion into roadless lands when a court has just upheld its authority to protect those lands. This administration promised to protect Colorado roadless areas as well or better than the 2001 Roadless Rule required. It doesn't look like they intend to live up to that promise.”

The state of Colorado has proposed its own roadless rule, which includes exemptions for coal-mine road building on about 20,000 acres of public land. However, the recent ruling in favor of the 2001 national rule casts some doubt on the Colorado petition effort that was started during the Republican Bush and Gov. Bill Owens' administrations.

Methane venting at the current West Elk coal mine.

Another conservation organization was critical of the refusal by the Forest Service to mandate the capture of methane gas, which the EPA says is 20 times more potent as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – making the West Elk mine one of the biggest contributors to climate change in Colorado.

“This project is a lose-lose-lose proposition,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy coordinator for WildEarth Guardians. “The public loses a fantastic wild area, loses millions in potential royalties from methane that is wasted instead of captured, and loses due to the massive pollution the mine causes. It's time the Forest Service stood up to Big Coal and said no to this kind of damaging expansion.”

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