Feds OK expansion of mine at Somerset

The proposed expansion of the West Elk Mine near Somerset won approval from the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday, giving Delta County officials cause to celebrate and sparking environmental organizations to dig in deeper against the mining plan.

In the draft record of decision, Forest Supervisor Scott G. Armentrout wrote that the benefits of the 1,720-acre, 17 million-ton coal mine expansion outweighed any environmental threat.

Delta County Commissioner Mark Roeber said the draft approval marked a "step forward and part of the process."

That process now goes to a 45-day review period in which Roeber said he expected environmental organizations to file objections.

"I can guarantee we won't raise an objection" to expansion of the mine, Roeber said.

The West Elk Mine employs about 220 people and last year produced 4 million tons.

Environmental organizations, however, countered that the Forest Service ignored threats to the climate and said the Forest Service was following orders from the Trump administration.

"The Trump administration's rubber-stamping of Arch Coal's mine expansion displays its utter contempt for our national forests, our public health, and public opinion," said Matt Reed, public lands program director for High Country Conservation Advocates. "More than 100,000 people signed petitions and letters opposing this project for the damage it would cause to wild forests and our climate. Trump ignored them all to benefit a mine that already has nearly a decade of dirty coal already under lease."

The Trump administration, however, is picking up where its predecessor left off, said John Swartout, rural policy and outreach director for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

"This deal was made possible by the Obama administration working with us and our delegation" to Washington, D.C., Swartout said. "The idea that Trump came in and everything changed, that's not true, at least not on this issue."

Arch Coal, which owns the mine, didn't respond immediately for comment.

In the draft decision, Armentrout explained his reasoning in an extended commentary.

"I have been underground in the West Elk Mine. I have hiked and viewed areas where surface impacts and reclamation have occurred on parent leases and will occur under my decision. I have been responsible for overall Forest Management of the entire three million plus-acre Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests for over five years and have been involved in public lands decision making for over 30 years," Armentrout wrote. "In making a decision such as this it would be easier if there were thresholds or confidence intervals involved that took away any uncertainty related to yet unknown locations for surface occupancy or related to greenhouse gas effects at the local, regional, national or global scales. That is simply not the case. I have reviewed the analysis and re-analysis conducted by agency specialists and have all the information necessary to make an informed decision. I am aware of the effects and potential impacts to the environment and have decided that these impacts are acceptable in light of their scope and scale and positive outcomes of this project."

Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski took issue with Armentrout's explanation.

"Supervisor Armentrout asserts that the climate harms from spewing millions of cubic feet a day of methane for years and burning millions more tons of coal are somehow 'uncertain.' That's baloney," Zukoski said in an email. "As a court found in 2014, there are ways to estimate and disclose the climate damage from this project; the Forest Service simply chose not to do its job of disclosing them."

Climate change, Zukoski said, already is playing out in the form of drought and beetle infestations on the forests Armentrout manages.

"Climate change is already damaging public health, property, and our quality of life. It is not 'acceptable,' as Supervisor Armentrout thinks, to needlessly worsen these impacts."

Release of the draft decision kicks off a 45-day comment period. If the decision is affirmed, work to build roads and drill vents for methane from the mine could begin in the spring.

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