After years of legal challenges, weather might be the only remaining obstacle to Arch Coal beginning work in a national forest roadless area in hopes of expanding its West Elk Mine near Somerset.
U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer denied a request Thursday by environmental groups for a temporary restraining order that would have kept Arch Coal from beginning to clear roads and build pads to do exploratory drilling in the Sunset Roadless Area.
The decision clears the way for Arch Coal subsidiary Mountain Coal Co. to immediately begin bulldozing in the roadless area if conditions permit despite this week's snowfall.
"There's no question that we're disappointed in this. This does appear to give the green light to put in roads as soon as (today) in an unroaded area, so we're entering new territory," said Matt Reed of High Country Conservation Advocates, which is based in Crested Butte and is leading the challenge of the mine's expansion into the roadless area.
But Arch Coal says the work it hopes to immediately do would involve disturbing only about eight acres, and it's urgent that it be done quickly to prevent the possibility of the mine potentially being forced to bypass mining of 1,700 acres of coal beneath the roadless area.
Brimmer's ruling comes less than a week after the Interior Department approved two Bureau of Land Management coal lease modifications covering the roughly 1,700 acres, just days after the U.S. Forest Service consented to issuing those leases.
The mine had obtained the lease modifications previously, but in 2014 a federal judge vacated the modifications and a broader North Fork Valley coal exemption to Colorado's national forest roadless rule, citing a lack of adequate environmental analysis. The Forest Service reinstated the roadless rule and again consented to the lease modifications after doing more analysis.
Environmental groups say the analysis is still inadequate, and sued hours after the Interior Department authorized the lease modifications. They then sought the temporary restraining order to prevent damage to the roadless area while the suit is litigated.
Arch Coal's efforts to mine under the roadless area could have long-term surface impacts involving an estimated six miles of temporary roads and 48 well pads that would have to be built to drill wells to vent potentially explosive methane that otherwise would build up in the mine.
But first it needs to do the exploratory drilling to obtain core samples and determine if there's enough coal beneath the roadless area to be worth mining.
That work is expected to require building all six miles of roads and 10 pads. But Arch Coal's immediate goal is to build two miles of road and drill from three pads in a first phase of exploratory work.
In a court filing, attorneys for Mountain Coal said that time is running out to get that work done and the mine is "facing a high risk of bypassing" the lease modification coal.
The lease modifications are at the far southern end of the mine, and the permitted reserves in the coal seam it's currently mining are running out. It will reach a "decision point" next year as to whether the lease modification coal can be recovered, and if it moves underground mining equipment away from the seam, the lease modification coal will be "economically bypassed," the court briefing said.
West Elk is operating longwall mining equipment that is expensive for it to move between locations in the mine.
The mine's attorneys say it also can mine a limited amount of non-federal coal in the coal seam it's now operating in, but if it mines that coal out of sequence with the lease modification coal, it will be geologically unable to mine the latter coal.
The mine's attorneys say the goal of the environmentalists is to prevent the exploratory work from proceeding "in the express hope they can run out the clock and ensure the coal is never mined."
Attorneys for the federal government also filed a briefing opposing a halt to the exploratory work, citing in part the possibility of royalties being lost if federal coal is bypassed. They also defended the legality of the government's work leading to the lease modifications and cited the minimal acreage the immediate exploratory work would involve.
Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice who is involved with the legal challenge of the roadless-area coal mining, said the impact on the roadless area will be far greater than eight acres, changing the nature of the forest by fragmenting the habitat through the road construction.
"It will take decades to recover," he said.
The mine's attorneys said in their briefing that prior reclamation at West Elk has been so successful that former drill pads were included as roadless in the new boundaries of Colorado's roadless rule.
Arch Coal spokesman Logan Bonacorsi said Thursday about Brimmer's ruling, "We were confident that the agencies had completed a good and thorough review of the proposed exploration plan and lease modifications, and the court clearly shared that perspective. We look forward to commencing exploration work expeditiously."
Whether snowfall could affect that timeline remains unclear. The mine attorneys said in their briefing that in most years the snow this time of year is too deep to do exploration, but dry weather this year has made the work possible.
With the arrival of snow in the state this week, "the weather gods may protect the Sunset Roadless Area for a few more days, or not. I don't know," Zukoski said.
As for the long term, "this story isn't over," he added. "Our lawsuit is still on file and we'll continue to pursue it."