Barring court action, a North Fork Valley coal mine will be able to do more work to install methane-venting wells in a national forest roadless area as a result of an order by a state agency last week.

The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety has partly lifted a previous order prohibiting the West Elk Mine’s surface-disturbing activities in a roadless area in the upper North Fork Valley. It acted after the mine obtained letters from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management indicating the mine has legal right of access on nearly 4,000 feet of road it bulldozed earlier this year, and is entitled to work on well pads along the road.

The decision means the mine will be able to drill methane boreholes from two pads it also cleared along the road this year, and also build two more pads along the road and drill on them, unless conservation groups prevail in an attempt to stop the action in court. They say a federal appeals court ruling in March prohibits the mine’s work in the roadless area.

The underground mine is owned by Mountain Coal Co., a subsidiary of Arch Resources. As of April, it employed 320 miners, according to state data. The methane-venting is required to prevent explosions during underground mining.

A Forest Service rule has generally protected roadless areas in national forests in Colorado from road-building, but provided for the possibility of temporary roads to be built in nearly 20,000 acres of roadless areas in the North Fork Valley to allow for underground coal mining. West Elk is trying to develop coal leases beneath the 1,700-acre Sunset Roadless Area. In March, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the North Fork Valley exception area due to the Forest Service’s failure to consider keeping some 4,900 acres in another roadless area out of the exception area.

While the appeals court ordered the lower court to void the entire exception area, Colorado U.S. District Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer didn’t do so until June 15, after conservation groups filed an emergency motion upon learning that Arch Resources had gone forward with road-building this spring. The Forest Service has said the appeals court ruling didn’t apply until Brimmer issued his order.

In June, the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety ordered Arch Resources to cease road-building and other surface-disturbing activity in the roadless area because it hadn’t shown it had maintained its legal right of entry. However, the division partly lifted that order last week after the Forest Service and BLM indicated Arch Coal is legally allowed to continue such work as it pertains to an existing road — the road built this spring.

Conservation groups had asked Brimmer for an emergency ruling preventing more surface disturbances in early June but suspended that request when the state barred such work. They are now renewing that request following the partial lifting of the state’s order. They contend the mine’s recent road-building was illegal.

“We had a court decision that said no more road-building. It’s not like the district court had any alternative action it could take” other than to rule consistent with the appeals court order, said Allison Melton, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The state’s revised order continues to bar further surface-disturbing activities by the mine elsewhere on its leases in the roadless area. The mine contends that the appeals court upheld its lease rights in the roadless area there.

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