State roadless rule tested in appeal against Arch Coal

Conservation groups’ failed administrative appeal of a proposed coal mine expansion has highlighted Colorado Roadless Rule issues that could face further legal testing.

The U.S. Forest Service’s regional office last week rejected an appeal of the Forest Service’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 actions would accommodate expansion of the company’s underground West Elk Mine east of Paonia.

The legal group Earthjustice had filed the appeal on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, High Country Citizens’ Alliance, Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Wild and Defenders of Wildlife. Among numerous appeal issues, the groups challenged the legality of the Colorado Roadless Rule, which the Obama administration had approved in July.

That rule allows for certain exceptions from roadless protections, including for some North Fork Valley coal mining.

The state had sought a roadless rule more tailored to Colorado’s needs, but many conservation groups have argued Colorado needs the greater protections of the 2001 national roadless rule.

The appeal said the environmental impact statement for the Colorado rule failed to take a hard look at impacts to water resources, lands outside roadless areas and greenhouse gas emissions.

Bill Bass, supervisor of the Bighorn National Forest, served as the reviewing officer for the appeal and recommended that the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region deny it.

The appeal contended that the Forest Service acted in error because the state rule was adopted in violation of law. But Bass found that, “The Colorado Roadless Rule has not been found to be in violation of any law, regulation or policy by any court of law; therefore, selection of any (forest management) alternative implementing the rule can occur.”

He also found that the roadless rule impact statement did take a hard look at areas outside roadless areas in regard to cumulative impacts. He said the study discussed greenhouse gas emissions, but its failure to quantify them wasn’t arbitrary or capricious because the expected extent of activities such as coal mining is speculative.

Likewise, the study appropriately addressed impacts on water resources in general terms, and a more detailed analysis of such impacts occurs when proposals for actual ground disturbance occurs, Bass determined.

Attorney Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice has said the conservation groups “will be examining all of our legal options going forward” following the appeal’s dismissal.

“I think the most important issue for us remains that this is an important and beautiful roadless area with high wildlife values” that the mining-related activities would disturb, he said.


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