Mine jobs driving effort for roadless-area deal

The Oxbow Mine near Somerset is one of the largest underground coal mines in America.

A resolution may be imminent to help allow for expanded coal mining in western Colorado’s North Fork Valley.

Representatives for the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., say they hope to hear from federal officials soon regarding possible permission to operate in roadless areas.

Natural Resources spokesman Theo Stein said in an e-mail that the state is working with the U.S. Forest Service to get relief for the mines. The relief would be consistent with the state’s proposed roadless plan “and our desire to protect those critical jobs,” Stein said.

He said the state hopes resolution may come as soon as this week.

Representatives of the Elk Creek and West Elk mines in the Somerset area say their ability to expand their underground operations beneath roadless areas is crucial to the future of hundreds of mining jobs. To safely expand, they need to install vents on the surface in those areas to allow for removal of dangerous methane gas.

The state’s proposed roadless plan would make an exemption to accommodate the mines’ expansions.

But officials with Oxbow Mining, which owns the Elk Creek Mine, have been frustrated by the delay in completing that plan, which Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration revised and put out for further public comment. Stein said he had no estimate on when the final plan would be released.

Meanwhile, a 2001 federal rule imposed by the Clinton administration and intended to protect roadless areas from surface disturbances has been the subject of conflicting rulings.

Last May 28, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack announced that for the next year, while court cases move forward and long-term roadless policy is developed, he was reserving for himself final decision-making authority over road construction and logging activities in roadless areas.

Agriculture Department spokesman Caleb Weaver said in an e-mail Wednesday that no decision has been reached regarding the Oxbow Mine, “but we expect one soon.” He did not elaborate on the possible nature of that decision.

Oxbow Mining president James Cooper said Salazar’s office has told him the Forest Service has said an answer would be coming soon “and it would be in a manner that we could live with.”

Salazar spokesman Eric Wortman said Salazar’s office has heard rumors that a resolution to the mines’ roadless issue would be coming soon, but they are only rumors at this point.

“The congressman is hopeful that it will be resolved quickly,” Wortman said.

Salazar wrote letters to the federal government on behalf of both mines, asking for a quick resolution, because of the jobs at stake, Wortman said.

“In essence we’re trying to help them cut through all the bureaucratic red tape. They just want to get an answer so they know their status on how they can move forward,” he said.

Oxbow’s case involves an area it leased from the federal government just after the Clinton rule took effect.

In the case of the West Elk Mine, it is hoping to expand into unleased areas that would be affected by the rule. Just what roadless rule relief, if any, the federal government might be considering providing to that mine remains unclear.

Weaver said the federal government recently told the mine’s owner, Arch Coal, it can proceed with preparing a draft environmental impact statement on the mine’s expansion.

However, the Agriculture Department and Forest Service told the company there is “still significant uncertainty as to whether the mine would ultimately move forward,” partly because of the litigation surrounding the 2001 rule, Weaver said.

Arch Coal declined to comment.

Environmental groups have been split over the issue of an exemption for the two mines. Some groups would prefer to see Ritter abandon a state roadless rule so the 2001 federal rule and its protections apply in Colorado without exception.

However, the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council in Paonia supports the mine exemptions in the Somerset area because of their importance to the local economy.


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