Coal mine proposal faces slew of hurdles

If everything were to work as Oxbow Mining could hope, the 360 miners would dredge out the last of the Elk Creek Mine’s recoverable coal in 2017, then show up the next day in a new mine, one under Oak Mesa north of Hotchkiss.

It’s probably too much to ask, but that’s the best-case scenario sketched out by Randy Litwiller, vice president of Oxbow Mining, which owns the Elk Creek Mine and is hoping to explore the size of the coal reserve underlaying Oak Mesa.

“Theoretically, we could have a mine ready to move people into by 2017,” Litwiller said.

To make that work, several things need to fall into place, not least of them being final approval from the Bureau of Land Management of the company’s proposed lease of about 800 acres east of the mine that it began pursuing on Sept. 4, 2006.

“It’s been five dang years,” Oxbow Mining President Jim Cooper said of the additional land. “We’re supposed to have a continuous-mining crew in there Aug. 11 of this year.”

The time is quickly approaching for Oxbow to decide whether to continue pursuing the additional coal under what is called the “east lease,” which is large enough to justify the effort to mine it from the existing operation, but too small to be sought out on its own, Cooper said.

If it ultimately turns out Oxbow is prohibited from digging out that coal, it will have to reduce the size of its work force, most likely by attrition and not by layoffs, Cooper said.

The additional life the lease would give the Elk Creek Mine would make for a smoother transition for miners, he said. The expansion, however, has been a flash point between Oxbow and environmental organizations, which have filed multiple appeals to prevent it.

Most recently, Earthjustice, founded as the legal arm of the Sierra Club, in February appealed the expansion to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, saying the coal Oxbow wanted to dig out would be burned in power plants across the nation, leading to the release of more than 10 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Bureau of Land Management “needs to recognize the link” between the coal being mined in western Colorado and “what that means as far as carbon dioxide emissions downstream,” Jeremy Nichols of Wild Earth Guardians in Denver said.

The biggest objection Wild Earth Guardians has to the mine expansion, though, is Oxbow’s lack of interest in capturing methane that would otherwise be vented into the atmosphere.

That methane is, like the coal, a federal resource that “should not be frittered away,” but turned to use either by being piped away or burned on site for electrical generation, Nichols said. “It could be lucrative.”

Wild Earth Guardians has taken no position on the possibility of a new mine beneath Oak Mesa, but said if Oxbow commits to capture and use methane from there, the organization “would seriously consider not opposing” the new mine, Nichols said.

Cooper dismissed the notion that Wild Earth Guardians or any other environmental organization would agree to a new mine.

“All they want us to do is go away,” Cooper said, “They’ve been protesting everything in this valley.”

Wild Earth Guardians’ hostility to coal mines is clear on its website,, where it touts among its activities “preventing the construction of new coal mines in Colorado.”

Coal, the environmental organization said, “is not only the root cause of global warming, but poses myriad other disastrous impacts,” such as emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter.

Still, said Nichols, “The reality is that coal mining is there” in the North Fork Valley. “We need to talk about options and better ways to do it.”

Coal demand isn’t going away, Cooper said, noting the U.S. Energy Information Administration anticipates the generation of electricity from coal will increase by 25 percent from 2009 to 2035.

The BLM has now conducted three environmental assessments of Oxbow’s proposal, bureau spokesman Steven Hall said. The extent of the challenge to the expansion, however, exceeds the scope of the agency, Hall said.

“We tried to look at the carbon emissions for burning that coal” but were unable to determine the total effect on the environment of mining the coal in the North Fork Valley, Hall said.

Wild Earth Guardians “no doubt will be dissatisfied with that. Their goal is to shut down coal mining,” Hall said. “The BLM is committed to the development of coal. We have not made a decision as an agency to stop coal mining.”


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