Groups seek to stop imminent coal work in area east of Paonia
Two conservation groups are taking last-minute legal action in hopes of stopping imminent road-building and other disturbances to accommodate coal mining in a national forest roadless area east of Paonia.
The High Country Citizens’ Alliance in Crested Butte and WildEarth Guardians, a western environmental nonprofit, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials in connection with plans by Arch Coal to do underground mining beneath 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area.
Those plans could extend the life of Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine by an additional three years.
The BLM says the mine currently has another nine to 11 years of reserves. The mine employs hundreds of workers.
Conservation groups have been trying for years to stop the expansion beneath the roadless area because it would require drilling of up to 48 wells to vent methane, and creation of roads to access well pads. Their more immediate concern is the BLM’s approval last week of plans by Arch Coal to drill a total of 10 exploratory wells from as many pads this summer and next to obtain core samples and determine whether mineable reserves exist in the mine expansion area.
A national rule prohibits road construction in roadless areas. But the Forest Service authorized Arch Coal’s plans based on the agency’s approval of a Colorado-specific rule that makes an exception for temporary roads for coal mining in the North Fork Valley. The lawsuit partly contends the Forest Service failed to adequately analyze and disclose air quality impacts of the state rule’s mining exemption, something the agency disputes.
In January, the HCCA and other groups filed an administrative appeal of the BLM’s approval the prior month of coal lease modifications allowing for the expansion.
But the Interior Board of Land Appeals let an automatic stay of the BLM’s decision expire.
The exploratory drilling would require about six miles of roads. In a finding of no significant environmental impact, BLM Uncompahgre Field Office manager Barbara Sharrow wrote that the exploratory work would be similar to past activities that already have occurred in the roadless area.
“Overall, the roadless character will not be additionally affected,” she determined.
The lawsuit contends, “The roads and well pads for both the Exploration Plan and the mining of the Lease Modifications will clearcut forest, destroy and fragment habitat, displace wildlife, alter hydrology, and transform a natural forest into a developed area.”