Groups appeal decision to allow coal mine expansion in roadless area

Conservationists this week filed an appeal of a decision allowing expansion of a North Fork Valley coal mine into a roadless area, and are seeking to prevent any work in the area while the appeal is considered.

Earthjustice filed the appeal and what is called a petition for stay with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, on behalf of the High Country Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, Rocky Mountain Wild and the Sierra Club. They’re challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s decision in December to let Arch Coal expand its West Elk Mine in Gunnison County through coal lease modifications.

The expansion could involve Arch Coal building more than six miles of roads and drilling 48 drilling pads to vent natural gas from its underground mining operation. Also approved by the Forest Service, it would involve about 1,700 acres of national forest largely consisting of the Sunset Roadless Area.

The project was facilitated by last year’s adoption of a Colorado-specific roadless rule that makes exceptions from roadless protections for coal mine expansions in the North Fork Valley.

In their appeal, the groups say a Forest Service study of that rule failed to disclose and evaluate greenhouse gas emissions the rule would allow in the form of methane venting and the burning of mined coal. The Forest Service’s regional office previously rejected an appeal based on that argument.

Kim Link, an Arch Coal spokeswoman, declined to comment on this week’s appeal based on the advice of corporate counsel because the company had not yet received the appeal. She previously has said that being able to temporarily access Forest Service lands lets the mine continue operations that sustain 350 jobs with an annual payroll of $40 million.

According to the appeal, Arch Coal’s Mountain Coal Co. subsidiary apparently intends to move quickly to explore and then mine in the roadless area, building roads and pads “within a matter of months.” However, the appeal contends granting a stay would cause the mine no immediate economic harm because it can mine current reserves for 12-14 years.

The BLM decision provides Arch Coal access to an estimated 10.1 million tons of federally owned coal in the lease modification areas, which then would provide access to some 9 million tons of coal on adjacent private lands and existing federal leases, the appeal says. Altogether, that would extend the mine’s life by about three years. The groups contend the agency failed to adequately address the impacts of mining on the adjacent public and private lands.

They also say the BLM didn’t consider the project’s impacts on the Canada lynx.


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