Roadless Rule must be changed to protect North Fork coal

Delta County is blessed with a rich coal- mining heritage. Right now, more than 1,000 folks in the North Fork Valley are directly employed by coal-mining operations. They are our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers. They serve on our civic boards and parent- teacher association. They are our Scout leaders and team moms. And they earn an honest living working the ground.

They do an important job, one that we rely on every day to fulfill our basic energy needs. Nearly 75 percent of Colorado’s electricity is generated from coal, and the mines in the North Fork account for about 42 percent of the state’s total coal production.

These mines produce a superior product. Because of very low sulfur content, North Fork coal is “super compliant,” meaning it has fewer emissions of sulfur dioxide, compared with coals mined in other parts of the country. North Fork coal is also very low in mercury. According to the Bureau of Land Management, “Colorado coal is among the highest quality, cleanest fuels found anywhere in the world.”

As a lifelong resident of Delta County, a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines and a Delta County commissioner, I am proud of the superior product the North Fork mines turn out every day.

The mines are a very important economic driver in our county. Besides paying excellent wages and benefits to their miners, the mines pay sales, property and severance taxes, and royalties amounting to tens of millions of dollars every year. Our county governments and schools would be unable to operate and deliver the same level of services residents demand without revenue from our coal mines. Even the health care system would be substantially different today if we did not have the mines, because those employers provide insurance plans and medical benefits that help attract qualified doctors to our area.

All of these positive benefits to our community are in jeopardy if the mines can’t continue to operate. In this era of ever-increasing and ever-more-burdensome federal and state government regulations, it is increasingly difficult for the mines to stay in business.

The latest regulatory hurdle that our coal miners have to navigate over is the continuing fallout from the 2001 Clinton Roadless Rule on our national forests. While most of their work is performed underground, the coal mines do require some access to the U.S. Forest Service lands on the surface to drill mine-ventilation boreholes. These boreholes help keep the miners safe by preventing the build-up of methane gas that would otherwise compromise the safe and efficient operation of the mines.

The state of Colorado has spent a lot of taxpayer money organizing bipartisan meetings to forge a Colorado Rule for roadless areas that would allow uses like coal mining to continue on the North Fork lands in the Gunnison National Forest. Unfortunately, U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer of Wyoming, enjoined the Roadless Rule in Colorado, taking away the local forest service employees’ ability to make decisions regarding the ventilation of boreholes in accordance with the current forest plans. The approval process has, instead, become hijacked and subject to endless delays by Forest Service officials in Washington D.C.

Unless this rule is modified, hundreds of miners will lose their jobs. And with them, our counties and their families lose as well. In these tough economic times it is more important than ever that we keep the good jobs we have in the North Fork Valley, and make sure that unemployment doesn’t get even worse due to government regulations that just don’t make sense.

If Gov. Bill Ritter is concerned with the safety and jobs of our North Fork miners, he needs to do two important things:  Immediately, he needs to contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Secretary Thomas Vilsack to persuade them to end the needless delay in the approval of the mine ventilation borehole drilling program.

Secondly, Ritter and his team must continue to work hard to move the Colorado Rule forward toward ultimate approval by the Forest Service. The safety and continued operation of our North Fork mines depend on it. Our counties depend on it. And our economy depends on it.

Olen Lund is a lifelong Delta County resident and a Delta County commissioner.


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