Sparks fly in debate over North Fork coal mining
Environmental organizations that offered more than 150,000 comments calling on the U.S. Forest Service to reject an agreement to allow additional mining in the North Fork area said the response demonstrated strong public opposition.
More like “stuffing the ballot box,” said an industry spokesman who noted that the environmental opposition would undermine a bargain fashioned over five years of talks.
The Forest Service proposes reinstating the North Fork coal-mining exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule. The exception would allow Arch Coal to extend the West Elk Mine near Somerset below the roadless area.
The roadless exemption would allow construction of surface wells to vent methane from underground mining to help prevent explosions.
The mine employs more than 300 people.
The issue, however, touched a nerve in several environmental organizations, according to Earthjustice, 50,000 of whose supporters commented on the proposal. Others included 50,000 from the Sierra Club, 33,000 from Friends of the Earth, 12,000 from the Climate Reality Project, 6,000 from WildEarth Guardians and 1,000 from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Those numbers are drawn from letters or petitions signed by supporters and submitted, sometimes thousands in a single email, to the Forest Service, said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski.
Colorado Mining Association President Stuart Sanderson was unimpressed, noting that comments frequently appear in the form of form letters.
“Typical attempt by anti-coal groups to stuff the ballot box,” Sanderson said.
Several organizations, however, submitted extensive comments.
“It is shocking that (the Forest Service) proposes to reopen the loophole in the same season the United States has pledged — with the rest of the world — to break sharply away from fossil fuels so as to limit further global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius,” the Western Colorado Congress wrote.
Wind and solar industry associations, the town of Crested Butte and others also weighed in opposing the exemption that affects 19,700 acres near Somerset.
The exemption could increase coal production by 172 million tons between 2016 and 2054 by mines in the North Fork Valley, the Forest Service said.
Opposition might not run as deep as the environmental organizations suggest, Sanderson said.
WildEarth Guardians has “been less than accurate about its support in the past, as the ‘Beergate’ scandal attests,” Sanderson said, referring to the reaction of some businesses listed as supporters by the company when WildEarth Guardians forced additional environmental reviews of Colowyo mine.
While environmental organizations cited Gov. John Hickenlooper’s support of efforts to reduce global warming, Sanderson noted that Hickenlooper and his predecessor, Bill Ritter, both Democrats, supported the exemption as it was drafted between 2005 and 2012.
The exemption has wide support, Sanderson said, except for the “anti-coal activist elitists who want to put people out of work in Colorado.”
The comment period on the exemption reinstatement ended Jan. 15 and a decision is expected this summer.