Agency stands by coal mine expansion into roadless area

The U.S. Forest Service is standing by its approval of a coal mine expansion into a roadless area 10 miles east of Paonia.

The Forest Service’s regional office this week ruled against conservation groups who had appealed the agency’s decision to let Arch Coal build 6.5 miles of road and 48 drilling pads for methane vents in 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area.

The activities would accommodate the expansion of the West Elk Mine, owned by Arch Coal’s Mountain Coal Co. subsidiary.

Conservationists have called the appeal a test of the Colorado Roadless Rule, which was approved by the Obama administration in July and makes exceptions to roadless protections in some areas for coal mine expansions.

They say the nearly three square miles in question provide habitat for lynx, bear, elk and goshawk.

“This is a place the Forest Service should be protecting for all Coloradoans, not sacrificing to appease special interests,” said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for Earthjustice, which filed the appeal on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, High Country Citizens’ Alliance, Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Wild and Defenders of Wildlife.

“We will be examining all of our legal options going forward,” he said in the groups’ news release.

The groups also object to the Forest Service not requiring the mine to capture any of the methane for its energy value, or burn it to reduce its volatility as a greenhouse gas. The methane, which is vented for miner safety, is considered more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

“This decision is poorly timed, made just after the public re-elected President Obama in part due to his stated concerns about worsening climate change,” Roger Ringer, Sierra Club senior representative in Colorado, said in the news release.

Federal officials have questioned the economic viability of methane capture and say flaring it creates a danger of a mine explosion.

Responding to this week’s decision, Arch Coal spokeswoman Kim Link said, “By allowing West Elk mine to temporarily access Forest Service lands in the North Fork Valley, the mine can continue safe, responsible operations. The project has positive economic benefits for the area, including sustaining 350 jobs with an annual payroll of $40 million.”



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