Exemption could open roadless area to coal mine expansion in Colorado

April 7, 2015

The U.S. Forest Service announced that it will try again to open a contested roadless area in western Colorado to coal mining development, The Denver Post reported.

If the area is opened it would pave the way for the West Elk Mine to access as much as 350 million st of coal in Somerset. The exemption was previously rejected in 2014.

The exemption was included in the 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule, which was developed by the state to protect forest areas where there are no roads, and was approved by the federal government.

Environmental groups sued in 2013 to block the exemption, arguing the Forest Service did not account for the impact of carbon pollution from mining and burning coal.

U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that the Forest Service had failed to adequately address the impact of mining coal on climate change.
The Forest Service and St. Louis-based Arch Coal, which operates the West Elk Mine, sought time to address the concerns, an argument Jackson rejected.

But Monday, the Forest Service said it was moving ahead with an environmental impact statement to open the 19,000 acres in the North Fork Coal Mining Area to roads, The Denver Post reported.

The initial analysis had accounted for the economic benefits of opening the area but failed to quantify the greenhouse gas impacts, said Jim Bedwell, a senior Forest Service official in Denver.

"The judge ruled that if you are going to quantify one, you have to quantify the other," Bedwell said. "So we are going to do that."

The exemption would open the area to at least 6 miles of roads and 48 drill pads. Access to the area is needed to drill wells to vent methane gas from the coal seams below for mining safety.

Colorado coal mines have been closing and cutting jobs. The state's coal production hit a 20-year low in 2014 at just under 23 million tons.

Still, Arch Coal has said that it plans to expand the West Elk Mine and in 2012 invested $29 million in a new Colorado coal processing facility.
Arch Coal praised the Forest Service's decision.

"We are pleased to see the agency has initiated plans to address the deficiencies," company spokeswoman Logan Bonacorsi said in an e-mail. "The North Fork exception was a central tenet to the Colorado Roadless Rule, a true demonstration to what collaboration and cooperation can achieve."


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