Environmentalists have filed another lawsuit in a last-ditch attempt to stop a coal mine's expansion beneath some 1,700 acres of roadless national forest in the upper North Fork Valley.
The legal action filed this week includes a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop Arch Coal from bulldozing roads in the Sunset Roadless Area in the Gunnison National Forest, building well pads there and drilling methane vent wells to accommodate underground operations by the West Elk Mine. The motion says legal counsel for Arch Coal recently indicated that work could start this week.
The suit was filed by WildEarth Guardians, High Country Conservation Advocates, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Wilderness Workshop against officials with the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, and high-level Interior Department officials.
In March, OSMRE approved a mining plan modification allowing for the expansion. An Interior Department assistant secretary since has signed off on the modification, allowing the work to proceed.
Conservationists contend the expansion would harm pristine forest that serves as important wildlife habitat and is treasured by hunters and hikers. They say it also threatens local streams and fish.
The mine plan calls for building 6.9 miles of temporary roads to drill 38 methane wells in the roadless area. Forty-three wells would be drilled altogether in an expansion that also involves private land.
The lawsuit also contends OSMRE failed to consider requiring mitigation of the methane venting associated with the expansion, through means such as flaring it at the surface.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas if it reaches the atmosphere. It also can explode in underground mines, making the vents necessary to protect miners. The West Elk Mine is the state's largest single industrial source of methane pollution. It's also the most productive coal mine in the state and the only remaining operating coal mine in the North Fork Valley, employing hundreds of miners.
A Colorado-specific national forest roadless rule includes a North Fork Valley exemption allowing temporary roads in roadless areas for coal mine methane venting. A federal judge ruled in 2014 that the environmental review for that exemption and for federal agency decisions specific to West Elk's planned expansion were inadequate, failing to consider climate costs.
The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management did further environmental analysis, after which the roadless rule was reinstated and coal lease modifications allowing for the West Elk expansion again were issued.
Conservationists sued again, contending in part that the agencies failed to take a hard look at climate costs as required in the earlier ruling. A federal district court dismissed their suit, but that decision is under appeal.
In the meantime, the mine already has done some initial roadbuilding and drilling in the roadless area for exploratory purposes to assess the underlying coal seams.
Conservation groups say in part in their new suit that federal agencies indicated in their earlier environmental reviews that the issue of methane mitigation would be better addressed once a mining plan was available than at the leasing stage. But OSMRE has declined to require a review of methane mitigation, the groups say.
A West Elk Mine representative recently told the North Fork Coal Mine Methane Working Group that the mine plans to look into methane destruction. The mine didn't elaborate at the time, but methane destruction likely would involve flaring the gas and selling the resulting carbon credits.
OSMRE has estimated that the expansion it approved would add about two years to the mine's life and allow for the mining of 10 million tons of federal coal. Conservation groups say it also makes it economically recoverable for the mine to produce another 7.5 million tons from private land and existing federal leases that otherwise wouldn't be mined.
They say that between the methane venting and the eventual burning of the coal that is produced, the mine could generate the greenhouse gas equivalent of 48 million tons of carbon dioxide over 2.7 years of expected mining under the approved plan.
"The West Elk Mine is one of Colorado's worst climate disasters," said Matt Reed, public lands director at High Country Conservation Advocates in Gunnison County. "Given the climate crisis, it's imperative to confront this destructive, dirty mine and the wasteful practice of venting methane."
OSMRE and Arch Coal officials could not be reached Wednesday for comment.