Western Slope coal mine expansion into roadless area derailed by Forest Service ruling

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenFebruary 16, 2012
The U.S. Forest Service this week overturned a decision to approve the expansion of a coal mine in western Colorado that biologists feared would destroy wildlife habitat.

Regional foresters in Denver say they reversed course on the 1,700-acre expansion of the West Elk coal mine into a roadless area near Somerset, Colo., because Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison foresters didn't explain why they weakened protections for lynx, bald eagles, and measures meant to prevent landslides — a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

It became apparent Arch Coal's proposal might need a second pair of eyes after foresters exchanged snark-infused comments with members of the public who oppose coal mining in what is mostly a pristine roadless landscape of beaver ponds and aspen and conifer forests that provides habitat for lynx, elk, eagles and black bears adjacent to the scenic West Elk Wilderness Area.

The Sunset Trail roadless area.

"This is the same proposal that drew all the snark from the Forest Service. I guess they kind of got what was coming to them," Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, wrote in an email to the Colorado Independent on Tuesday. "I wouldn't say it's the end of this project, but it's certainly a setback for Arch Coal [based in St. Louis, Mo.] and those in the Forest Service that have been pushing hard to get Arch what it wants."

Western Slope foresters initially approved the mine expansion just days after a decision by the Denver-based Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the 2001 National Roadless Rule, which the Obama administration defended. The Clinton-era rule prohibits road construction on roughly 4 million acres of roadless forest in Colorado, including the Sunset Trail roadless area.

Once the West Elk mine expansion received an OK, environmentalists immediately appealed.

“It's good news for Colorado's forests that this destructive proposal was sent back to square one,” Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a prepared statement. “The Forest Service should not have been trying to pave the way for an incursion into roadless lands when a court recently upheld its authority to protect those lands.”

Read the Forest Service decision of appeal letter to Earthjustice here (pdf).

The West Elk coal mine is underground, but methane venting wells are drilled above the mine and spew millions of cubic feet of the potent greenhouse gas into the air every day. Conservationists claim methane venting makes the West Elk mine one of the single largest carbon polluters in Colorado.

A message left for Arch Coal was not immediately returned.

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