Roadless area decision looms for mine

The long-term future of the West Elk Mine may hinge in part on whether it should be allowed to undertake an underground expansion that would have sizable surface impacts.

As the coal mining operation has moved deeper underground, it has encountered higher levels of methane, which poses a danger of explosion to miners. The solution for West Elk has been to begin drilling methane venting or drainage wells from the surface down to just above the area being mined, to safely get the gas out of the mine.

The controversy has arisen because Arch Coal wants to get its federal coal lease modified so it can someday expand beneath more than 1,700 acres lying beneath the Sunset roadless area, adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness and at the base of Mount Gunnison. It would need to drill wells from the surface of the roadless area and install temporary roads to the well pads.

“It’s really quite a beautiful and remote landscape that will be scarred for decades by road construction and creation of these pads,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the conservation group Earthjustice.

Some conservation groups have objected to not just the West Elk proposal but a broader North Fork Valley coal exemption to a Colorado roadless rule drawn up by the U.S. Forest Service, the state and others. While the rule is intended to generally protect roadless national forest areas in the state from development, the exemption allows for temporary road construction and drilling of methane wells on about 20,000 acres in the valley for coal mining operations, should mines obtain the leases and regulatory approvals such operations would require.

In 2014, a federal judge ruled in a suit brought by conservationists, canceling Arch Coal’s coal lease modification for the Sunset roadless area and vacating the entire North Fork coal exemption to the roadless rule. The judge cited a failure by the federal government to consider climate-change impacts of its decisions.

In December, the Forest Service decided to reinstate the exemption, after conducting the additional environmental review required under the ruling. It has found that the action could result in billions of dollars in global greenhouse gas impacts but also has cited the industry’s importance to the local economy, saying it could potentially increase the valley’s coal production through 2054 by 172 million tons.

Now the Forest Service is preparing a supplemental draft environmental impact statement on Arch Coal’s proposed coal lease modification for the Sunset roadless area and exploratory drilling to extract cores and determine the size of the underlying coal resource. Niccole Mortenson, a Forest Service employee working on the document, said it probably will be released in a month or less, with a decision possibly being released this fall.

Zukoski is aghast about the idea of disturbing the roadless area, which he has visited and said features rolling hills, a mix of aspen and spruce/fir, mountain views and beaver ponds, and habitat for bear, lynx, elk and other wildlife.

Arch Coal’s plans would “dramatically change the character of the area,” he said.

Worse yet in Zukoski’s mind, installing the vents would lead to the waste of methane, a public resource that he said in the short term can be 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas when released to the atmosphere rather than burned. Already, he said, West Elk is the state’s largest source of industrial methane pollution.

Adding to that, he said, “the coal will be burned and worsen our climate change.”

In addition, Zukoski said, the Forest Service is contemplating the lease modification even as it is looking to spend millions of dollars on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests for projects aimed at boosting the long-term resiliency of forests. Forest Service climate-change modeling has suggested that by the end of this century aspen trees across those forests could generally disappear where they currently exist, shifting to higher elevations in some places and vanishing altogether from virtually all of the Uncompahgre Plateau.

“On the one hand they’re spending millions of dollars to address that threat and on the other hand they’re making it worse,” Zukoski said of the Forest Service.

High Country Conservation Advocates in Crested Butte and WildEarth Guardians also object to the Arch Coal plans.

“We as a local organization in Gunnison County are seeing firsthand I think the impacts of climate change to our national forests, to our public lands here,” said Matt Reed, public lands director for HCCA.

These range from beetle-killed trees to earlier snowmelt and runoff, he said. He believes expanding the coal mine would directly impact the county’s outdoor recreation and agricultural economies.

Further aggravating matters for people like Zukoski and Shannon Hughes of WildEarth Guardians is that Arch Coal’s proposed expansion comes as it also is asking for an extension of a reduced federal royalty rate — 5 percent rather than the standard 8 percent underground coal mine rate — after its prior rate reduction expired in early 2015. Zukoski notes that the mine has been able to continue operating under the 8 percent rate since the rate reduction expired, and Hughes called reducing royalty rates “a big giveaway to the coal industry” that adds to her frustration over the roadless issue and venting of methane.

Arch Coal asked for the extension in 2014 and is now hoping it will retroactivity apply to production since 2015. In seeking the reduction, it has told the Bureau of Land Management that continuing poor geological conditions impact the economic development of the coal seam it is currently mining.

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One local conservation group, the Paonia-based Western Slope Conservation Center, has taken a contrasting position to other environmentalists on Arch Coal’s Sunset roadless area plans in particular and North Fork Valley coal mining in general. Alex Johnson, the group’s executive director, said the local mines have been important partners of the group for decades. They’ve assisted with watershed stewardship projects and contributed toward efforts that have resulted in nearly 15,000 acres of private land protected by conservation easements.

“The coal mines in a lot of ways have been very good neighbors, so we really understand the role they’ve played in making this place what it is,” he said.

His group supported the North Fork exemption to the roadless rule as a compromise that allows for more coal mining but also provides for the affected acreage to again be managed as roadless areas after the temporary roads and pads have been removed and the area revegetated.

Johnson said his group wants to honor the long legacy of coal mining in the valley and the continued economic benefits it provides in local communities.

He said reclaiming the roadless area would require things such as monitoring of wildlife and vegetation. But his group has been impressed by the West Elk Mine’s efforts reclaiming other sites.

“They take it very seriously and they are putting a significant amount of money into that reclamation process, and the state (Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety) carefully oversees that,” he said.

Mortenson, of the Forest Service, said that rarely are the mine’s vents and roads on the ground for more than two or three years before recontouring, seeding and other reclamation work begin.

Said Kathy Welt, environmental engineer at the mine, “As we go we’re trying to seal and reclaim as many boreholes each year as we construct.”

She said the mine also has worked over time to reduce the number of venting wells it needs to drill, and to leave more methane in the ground, understanding the concerns associated with releasing methane into the atmosphere.


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