Shutdown has no effect on coal mine operations

The partial federal government shutdown is having no significant impacts on day-to-day operations of area coal mines although delays in approvals hold the potential to affect longer-term plans.

The shutdown also is raising some questions about the adequacy of safety and environmental protections, although safety inspections continue and the state of Colorado says it’s handling the environmental front.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s shutdown plan is to maintain a level of inspections and investigations required to avoid significantly compromising safety, according to a memo prepared by Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health for the Department of Labor.

The West Elk and Bowie No. 2 mines in the North Fork Valley have continued operating since last week’s shutdown began. The mines employ hundreds of workers.

“It’s business as usual,” said Kim Link, spokeswoman for Arch Coal, which owns the West Elk Mine near Somerset.

“At least for the time being (the shutdown) is not impacting our business,” said Dewey Tanner, an employee and former general manager at the Bowie mine.

Oxbow’s mine was shut down last week, but for different reasons, as it was laying off nearly 150 workers due to problems that have led to the loss of its longwall mining machine in part of the mine because of dangers of spontaneous combustion.

Link said there is the potential for West Elk and other Arch Coal mines to face longer-term impacts related to permits that require federal approval.

Tanner said a coal lease proposal involving Bowie is out for public comments being taken by the Bureau of Land Management, but he doesn’t expect impacts on the mine even if the shutdown lasts for a few weeks.

The federal Office of Surface Mining had planned a public meeting in Craig for this week on a proposed expansion of the Colowyo Coal Mine between Craig and Meeker. But Jeremy Nichols, who monitors coal mine issues for the WildEarth Guardians environmental group, said the shutdown forced the meeting’s cancellation.

“It’s the expansions, it’s the new leases, it’s the new mining plans from the federal government that it looks like are obviously being held up,” he said. “… That delay, I wouldn’t be surprised if it could have a significant impact on these companies’ economic plans.”

Oxbow Mining Executive Vice President Mike Ludlow said one slight impact for the Elk Creek Mine as officials there work on how to move forward with mining could be a delay in MSHA approval of pending plans submitted for the mine.

MSHA’s shutdown strategy involves keeping 966 of it 2,355 employees working. Key functions it’s still doing include inspections of mines prioritized based on a history of hazards that put miners’ lives at risk, and of mines across the country based on specific hazardous conditions and practices that have recently caused death or serious injury. The agency continues to conduct investigations, as in the cases of accidents or miners’ safety complaints.

But Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said MSHA doesn’t have enough inspectors operating even when at full staffing. What’s being lost now are regular inspections that are required four times a year, and that MSHA couldn’t always do even before the shutdown, he said.

Smith said there were mine fatalities in Wyoming, Illinois and West Virginia just between Friday and Sunday.

“I think for the safety of all miners the Mine Safety and Health Administration should be considered an essential agency. People’s lives are at stake here,” he said.

He said most companies have good safety programs in place and want to do the right thing.

“But that said, even at the best mines things can start cascading out of control very quickly if there isn’t a watchdog keeping an eye out,” he said.

Tanner and Link differentiated between more far-reaching quarterly inspections and the day-to-day variety, and said MSHA inspectors have been at their mines daily since the shutdown.

“At West Elk they even had them over the weekend,” said Link.

On the environmental side of things, Nichols worries about what oversight exists, especially as it pertains to impacts on federal lands, such as when methane vents are drilled on national forest land above coal mines.

“I worry that it might be a free-for-all right now,” he said.

But Loretta Pineda, director of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said that while all regulatory authority over mining safety lies with MSHA, Colorado has primacy over reclamation and environmental protection under the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

“We are continuing with our normal field inspection and permitting processes,” she said.

She said her agency’s authority extends to BLM and U.S. Forest Service land under agreements with those agencies.

Link said the shutdown doesn’t change Arch Coal’s obligation to follow the laws.

“Arch has to comply all the time, whether the federal government is watching,” she said.

Pineda said that so far the division hasn’t had any significant delays related to the shutdown. She said it has one contact person with the federal Office of Surface Mining, and she believes the same to be the case with the BLM and Forest Service. If the shutdown lasts much longer and the state runs into situations where it needs to get concurrence from those agencies before being able to move forward, delays in things such as permitting could result, she said.


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