Conservationists force agencies to take a new look at environmental impacts of coal mine expansion
Construction of road and methane venting pad above the West Elk coal mine. Source: U.S. Forest Service
U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson issued a 36-page ruling holding that each of the three decisions by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that ultimately approved the proposed bulldozing violated the federal law requiring that agencies take a “hard look” at environmental impacts. The court’s decision halts for now Arch Coal’s plan to begin exploring for coal, which involves building 6 miles of road and scraping 10 drilling pads in the heart of the roadless area. Arch hoped to begin drilling as early as next week. A copy of the ruling is available.
Earthjustice, on behalf of the High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, and Sierra Club filed suit in federal court last year to overturn BLM and Forest Service decisions approving bulldozing in the Sunset Roadless Area’s aspen and spruce forest to permit underground coal mining below. The roadless area is in the Gunnison National Forest of western Colorado about 15 miles southeast of Paonia, next to the West Elk Wilderness.
“Today’s court ruling will ensure that Federal agencies take the hard look that the law requires at environmental harms before bulldozing roads throughout the Sunset Roadless Area,” said Alli Melton, Public Lands Director for High Country Conservation Advocates. “Pristine forests, such as the Sunset Roadless Area, are part of Colorado’s natural heritage and can’t be replaced. They provide substantial benefit to our local economies, hunting and angling alone brings in over $1 billion to the Colorado economy. Clean air and clean water are essential necessities for our quality of life and for ensuring the West Elks remain a world-class recreation destination for years to come. Requiring these values and benefits to be considered is another step to ensuring balanced public land management that supports diverse, resilient local economies.”
The area Arch Coal plans for road and drilling pad construction provides habitat for the threatened lynx, is crossed by the Sunset Trail (a backcountry route used by hikers and hunters), and provides a valuable link between the West Elk Wilderness Area and lower-elevation forests along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
The Court found that the Forest Service failed to account for the impacts of global warming from mining coal under the roadless area when approving Arch Coal’s lease. The Court held that the Forest Service looked at the benefits to the local economy for both decisions but ignored the global costs of climate change, stating: “It is arbitrary to offer detailed projections of a project’s upside while omitting a feasible projection of the project’s costs.”
“This decision means that these agencies can’t bury their heads in the sand when confronting the very real impacts of climate change,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney with Earthjustice.
“This mine expansion was a lose-lose-lose proposition,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “We stood to lose our backcountry at the expense of our climate. Thankfully, the feds will have to take into account the costs of carbon pollution before approving more coal mining.”
“BLM’s federal coal leasing program has a massive impact on our climate and public health, affecting the waters we use, the air we breathe, and the wild areas we enjoy. For years, BLM has been telling the public that its individual coal leasing decisions—even those approving hundreds of millions of tons of coal–have no impact on our climate. That assumption is out the window. This decision means that just saying there’s no impact doesn’t mean there’s no impact,” said Roger Singer, Senior Organizing Manager with the Sierra Club in Colorado.
The Court enjoined any road construction in the roadless area, and asked attorneys for all parties to discuss how the agencies should proceed in light of the decision.
The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service decisions challenged in the lawsuit authorized the leasing of 10.1 million tons of coal under 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area, which would expand Arch’s West Elk Coal Mine. Without the leases, the mine can continue to operate for at least 8-10 more years.
Although the West Elk mine is underground, the coal seams are some of the gassiest in the nation, which requires Arch to drill natural gas wells above the coal seams to vent explosive methane gas.
The methane gas vented by Arch coal is not only a valuable commodity (natural gas), it’s also a powerful global warming pollutant.According to the Forest Service, the planned methane venting will release the equivalent of 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, equal to the greenhouse gas emissions from 250,000 passenger vehicles.
A spaghetti-web of roads and pock-marks of well pads for the existing West Elk mine adjacent to the expansion area can be easily seen on Google maps. View Google images of existing methane venting above the West Elk coal mine.
Photos of the Sunset Roadless Area, as well as damage outside the area from coal mining, are available for download.
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