Conservation groups said Tuesday they will sue Arch Coal over its alleged failure to comply with federal Clean Air Act requirements related to pollutants emitted along with methane as a result of its coal mining in the North Fork Valley.
WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, High Country Conservation Advocates, the Sierra Club and Public Justice filed a notice Tuesday saying they intend to sue the company in 60 days in connection with volatile organic compound emissions at its West Elk Mine.
Those emissions occur as a part of venting of methane from the underground mine. They include benzene and other substances that contribute to formation of harmful, ground-level ozone.
Proportionally, VOCs make up a small amount of the gas being vented from the mine, which mostly consists of methane. But conservation groups say the VOC emissions still are in a volume high enough to fall under regulations because so much methane is released.
The mine is Colorado’s largest single industrial source of methane, a greenhouse gas.
Conservation groups say that under the Clean Air Act, the mine should be subject to Colorado air-pollution reporting, permitting and control requirements.
Currently, the state Air Pollution Control Division doesn’t regulate emissions from coal mine methane venting. During the administration of former Gov. John Hickenlooper, that state agency asked for additional information and testing for VOC emissions from underground coal mines. But it later suspended that request based on technical challenges related to gathering emissions data, and the state decided against taking any regulatory enforcement action against West Elk Mine over its VOC emissions.
Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians said Tuesday that under the administration of Gov. Jared Polis, the state has renewed its request for emissions data from Arch Coal, but he doesn’t know if it has been gathered or submitted to the state. He said while he’s pleased to see the state taking some action on the matter, he’s been raising the issue since 2012 and a suit in federal court “seems like it might be the quickest way forward at this point.”
Nichols noted that state air regulators this week are considering tighter rules applying to the oil and gas industry.
“And then you have Arch Coal doing absolutely nothing (to control emissions). There’s a lot of room for improvement here,” he said.
Arch Coal didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
An expansion of the mine has been the subject of multiple lawsuits over the years as conservation groups have challenged its efforts to begin operating under a roadless area in national forest, which would require installation of dozens of methane vents there.
In November, ruling on a suit brought by many of the same conservation groups, a federal judge halted the mine’s expansion, deciding that a federal mining agency first needs to consider requiring flaring of the methane emissions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Flaring also would cut down on VOC emissions. In that ruling, the judge noted that Arch Coal said it is looking into the use of a new flaring system it might be able to implement if the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration finds it safe for miners.
Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said of the conservation groups’ latest action, “They sue anybody and everybody to try to accomplish their end result, which is to just shut down coal mining in Colorado.”
He said 200 to 300 jobs at the West Elk Mine could be affected by the latest planned litigation.
“This is an action intended to harm rural Colorado and threaten the jobs of the folks that work at the mine. That’s disappointing,” he said.