Thousands comment on Arch expansion

Tens of thousands of comments have been submitted on a proposal to expand federal coal leases beneath 1,700 acres of a North Fork Valley roadless area, which could lead to extensive temporary roads and well pads on the surface and venting of methane to the atmosphere.

Ted Zukoski, an attorney for the group Earthjustice who is representing several conservation groups on Arch Coal’s proposal for its West Elk Mine, said more than 30,000 people submitted comments during the Forest Service’s recently concluded comment period on a draft supplemental environmental impact statement on the proposal.

But he estimated that about 100,000 people wrote letters or added their names to petitions opposing the project. About 44,700 people signed an Earthjustice letter, with about 12,000 of them also submitting personalized comments.

Zukoski said Environmental Action submitted a petition with more than 20,000 signatures, and the Sierra Club submitted emails containing a total of more than 30,000 signatures.

Those submitting opposition letters included Tim Wirth, a Democrat and former U.S. senator who has homes in Boulder and Crested Butte, and a group of winter athletes from Colorado, including Olympic snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler and extreme skier and ski mountaineer Chris Davenport, both board members for the group Protect Our Winters.

The athletes are worried about the mine’s plans for drilling up to 48 methane venting wells as part of the expansion.

“The West Elk Mine has already been Colorado’s largest single emitter of methane due to its existing drainage wells that vent this powerful greenhouse gas into the sky, using our atmosphere as a free garbage dump. This is a rip-off to taxpayers who own that methane and a catastrophe for our climate,” the athletes wrote.

Christian Reece, executive director of Club 20, wrote, “The West Elk Mine is the only coal mine left in the North Fork Valley and is extremely important to the local and Western Slope economies.

“Without the proposed lease modifications, it is highly likely that many of these jobs will be lost.”

Arch Coal previously had obtained the lease modifications, but a federal judge canceled them in 2014 and vacated a broader, roughly 20,000-acre North Fork coal exemption to Colorado’s roadless rule, finding that the federal government failed to adequately consider the climate-change impacts. The Forest Service since has reinstated the coal exemption following further analysis.

Comments submitted by Zukoski and by Michael Drysdale, an attorney representing Arch Coal, differ on whether the new Forest Service review on the lease modifications and proposed exploratory drilling properly addresses the judge’s concerns.

And while Zukoski contends the lease modification would “degrade and fragment more than a thousand acres of wild forest directly adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness,” Drysdale argues that the roads and pads would improve wildlife habitat by opening up mature and over-mature forest in the Sunset Roadless Area.

Mark Stilley of Montrose wrote, “My family and I have elk hunted in this area for over 45 years. I’ve heard this area referred to as ‘pristine’ and that is an understatement. It should be left as it is.”

Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado said in a letter of support for the proposal, “While a portion of the area is used by hunters during a portion of the fall, other recreational activity is limited by dense vegetation, lack of access, and steep terrain. Thus, granting the lease modification and exploration activity would have very limited impact on recreation.”

Candice Long, a geoscientist with Raven Ridge Resources, a Grand Junction company that works internationally on coal mine methane emissions, wrote in favor of the proposal, as long as the mine either uses the gas drained from the mine or flares it off to reduce its environmental impacts. If that’s not economical, mining shouldn’t occur until technological improvements or higher coal and gas prices make methane mitigation feasible, Long wrote.

 


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