A state board this week upheld an order barring further road-building or other surface-disturbing activities by the West Elk Mine in the Sunset Roadless Area of the Gunnison National Forest in the upper North Fork Valley.
The Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board voted to uphold the June cessation order by the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety against the coal mine. The mine is owned by Mountain Coal, a subsidiary of Arch Resources, which recently changed its name from Arch Coal.
The division contends the underground mine has failed to maintain its legal right to enter the roadless area. The order doesn’t prohibit ongoing subsurface operations.
The mine is seeking to expand beneath about 1,700 roadless acres.
To do so, it needs to build temporary roads in order to drill wells to vent methane freed up during mining and help protect miners from possible explosions.
A U.S. Forest Service roadless rule specific to Colorado largely protects roadless areas from disturbance.
But it contains a North Fork Valley exception area that covers nearly 20,000 acres and is intended to accommodate underground coal mining.
In March, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found the Forest Service improperly failed to consider keeping another roadless area out of the exception area, and ordered a district court to vacate the entire exception area.
By the time a district court judge did that, in June, Arch Resources this spring had built what conservation groups estimate is more than a mile of road in the Sunset Roadless Area.
Arch Resources says that the appeals court upheld its coal lease rights beneath the roadless area, and it can build roads there under those rights.
“We believe that this cessation order exceeds the state’s authority,” Michael Drysdale, an attorney representing the mine, told the mine board at its meeting.
“Legally I don’t think they have access right now, legal access,” MLRB board member John Singletary said in reference to the mine.
Board member Karin Utterback-Normann cast the board’s sole vote against upholding the cessation order, voicing concerns about the potential impacts on the more than 300 people the mine employs.
“I think there are an awful lot of other factors and people that could be drastically affected by this,” she said.
The mine has warned it might have to shut down mine operations for several months and lay off a large number of employees if it can’t install planned vent holes in the roadless area this construction season.
Based on the appeals court ruling, conservation groups have asked Colorado U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip Brimmer to order the Forest Service to no longer allow the road-building or other surface-disturbing work by Mountain Coal.
He hasn’t yet ruled on that request.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service also could seek to eventually reinstate the North Fork Valley roadless-rule exception in a way that addresses the appeals court’s concerns and allows the mine to proceed with road-building.
Jeremy Nichols, with WildEarth Guardians, a party to the legal case, was happy to see the state cessation order upheld.
“There’s more to come. This saga continues to unfold, but in the meantime we at least have this reprieve and we have assurances that Arch Coal isn’t going to do further damage to the roadless area,” he said.