Agriculture secretary approves Somerset mine’s methane vents

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has agreed to let the Elk Creek Mine drill 12 methane vent wells in an inventoried roadless area near Somerset.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture initially caused confusion Thursday when it mistakenly said in a news release that the decision applied to the nearby West Elk Mine.

Brad Goldstein, spokesman for Oxbow Corp., owner of the Elk Creek Mine, said Vilsack made the right decision in approving temporary roads for the vent wells.

“It was the ability to mine our future reserves, that’s what this was about,” Goldstein said.

Vilsack’s decision lets Oxbow mine the reserves without a danger of methane gas buildup creating an unsafe work environment, he said.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter had written Vilsack in support of Oxbow’s request to be allowed to install the vent holes in the Springhouse Creek inventoried roadless area. Ritter cited the importance of coal mining to the Paonia-area economy.

Vilsack has reserved temporary decision-making authority over road building in roadless areas because of conflicting court rulings regarding the 2001 roadless rule, which sought to protect inventoried roadless areas in Colorado and other states.

Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians objected to Vilsack’s decision Thursday.

“If Elk Creek can’t expand its mine without despoiling roadless areas, they shouldn’t be allowed to expand,” he said.

He also objects to the government letting Oxbow vent the methane instead of capturing it for use or flaring it to reduce its impact as a greenhouse gas.

Oxbow says methane capture isn’t practical or economical, and flaring could cause a mine explosion. It also says Springhouse Creek isn’t actually roadless. Some road building has occurred there since a 1979 roadless study was conducted.

Vilsack previously 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. However, no decision has been made on whether the mine would be able to build roads to drill methane vents there.

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. The state plan still must undergo federal review.


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