Agency upholds mine expansion decision

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.

The decision that was appealed had been made by Sherry Hazelhurst, then the acting supervisor of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.

“All appeal issues raised have been considered and the record is adequate to support the Forest Supervisor’s decision,” Rocky Mountain Region Deputy Regional Forester Brian Ferebee said in the appeal decision.

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 the North Fork Valley 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 methane would be vented for miner safety.

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 through flaring to reduce its impact 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,” Link continued.


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