Vilsack allows movement on mine proposals


Capture, burn or vent?

Jeremy Nichols of the group WildEarth Guardians said he opposes letting coal mines disturb roadless areas, or vent methane anywhere. He would rather see methane captured for use as a fuel, or at least combusted by flaring to convert it to carbon dioxide, a far less potent greenhouse gas.

The federal government is concerned that burning methane via flaring could cause a coal mine explosion. Arch Coal and Oxbow say it’s not economical to capture the methane.

WildEarth Guardians already has sued the federal government for allowing methane venting at West Elk Mine’s existing operations.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack has agreed to let a coal mine near Paonia proceed with pursuing the installation of three methane vents in a federally inventoried roadless area.

Vilsack decided not to block plans by Oxbow Mining LLC to drill the vents in the Springhouse Creek roadless area. The vent plans are still subject to review by state mining regulators.

Thanks to action by Vilsack, an environmental review also is under way for another North Fork Valley mine that hopes to harvest coal beneath a second roadless area

Vilsack directed the U.S. Forest Service to proceed with evaluating proposed coal lease modifications that potentially would let Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine expand beneath about 1,500 acres of the West Elk inventoried roadless area.

Springhouse Creek and West Elk are among areas that have been evaluated by the Forest Service for their roadless character, and President Clinton’s 2001 roadless rule sought to protect them from road building. That rule has been the subject of conflicting court rulings, so Vilsack last year decided to temporarily reserve decision-making authority over road building and logging in the areas, which are on national forests.

Although the Springhouse Creek and West Elk areas were subject to a federal roadless study, which occurred in 1979, some road building subsequently took place on some of that land legally before the 2001 protections were imposed.

Colorado recently finalized its own proposed roadless rule, and it would allow for some North Fork Valley coal mining expansions involving methane vents in roadless areas. But the state plan still must undergo federal review.

Oxbow Mining wants to expand its underground mine based on an existing federal lease and vent methane to the surface, which would reduce the chance of a mine explosion. Company president James Cooper said the three vents would allow for about three months of mining late this year, and the company is waiting for a decision from Washington on 12 more vent holes.

In February, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management found that a separate proposal by Oxbow to lease nearly 800 more acres adjacent to its mine would create no significant environmental impact. The proposal is subject to a competitive lease sale, with sealed bids to be opened May 12.

The vent holes that are planned for that acreage would be on BLM land.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has begun seeking public comment on a proposal to expand two existing leases at the West Elk Mine by a total of 1,722 acres. Under Vilsack’s directive, his intervention was needed before the Forest Service could even begin considering the lease proposal. But it doesn’t resolve the question of whether the mine would be able to drill methane vents in the inventoried roadless acreage that makes up the vast majority of the land involved.

The Forest Service first will decide whether it even consents to letting the BLM proceed with the leasing on forest lands, and if so, what rules the Forest Service will impose to protect the surface.

Although the Forest Service must analyze the possibility that vent wells might be needed, leasing would not authorize them. The agency says conditions on the existing leases would apply to the expanded leases. These include a condition that in the case of roadless areas, the leases may be subject to any Agriculture Department road-building restrictions that are applicable when any roads are proposed.


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