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Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration's OK of Colorado Coal Mine Expansion in Roadless Forest

Conservation groups sued the Trump administration today to stop imminent expansion of the West Elk coal mine

DENVER― Conservation groups sued the Trump administration today to stop imminent expansion of the West Elk coal mine into roadless wildlands on the Gunnison National Forest. The lawsuit seeks a court order to prevent St. Louis-based Arch Coal from starting exploratory drilling and road construction as soon as today on pristine public lands on Colorado’s West Slope.

The coal mine expansion required approval from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The Forest Service on Monday approved Arch Coal’s lease to mine 17 million tons of coal on 1,700 acres about 40 miles southwest of Aspen. With its decision today, the Department of Interior’s fast-track approval circumvented the usual BLM process that would have provided interested citizens an opportunity to appeal. 

“The foundation and future of our West Slope economy are healthy public lands,” said Matt Reed, public lands director for Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “Bulldozing roadless forests to release staggering amounts of climate change pollution will impact wildlife, water and recreation, directly undermining public lands.”

Arch Coal plans to carve nearly six miles of roads and scrape nearly 50 drilling pads ― with vents to release the potent greenhouse gas methane ― into the Sunset Roadless Area, adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness. The mine expansion will destroy habitat for black bear, elk, beaver and Canada lynx, and industrialize a landscape currently enjoyed by hunters and hikers.

“The Trump administration’s dangerous decision will harm public health and destroy some of Colorado’s most pristine forests,” said Allison Melton, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Arch Coal already has a decade’s worth of coal under lease at this mine. It’s senseless to sacrifice these public lands so more carbon pollution can be spewed into the atmosphere.”

“The federal government is giving away our spectacular forests to Arch Coal so they can squeeze more profit out of Colorado’s shared public resources before the coal industry completely collapses,” said Roger Singer, senior organizing manager with the Sierra Club. "This decision allows Arch Coal to bulldoze public lands, endanger wildlife, and wreck our air quality. The West Elk mine is already the state’s biggest methane polluter, and now the Trump administration is giving Arch Coal free rein to waste more of our valuable resources while also worsening climate change that is already hurting Colorado."

The lawsuit filed today challenges the Forest Service’s failure to comply with environmental disclosure laws. The Forest Service’s analysis of the project:

  • Down-played the climate pollution impacts of coal mining while inflating the economic benefits,
  • Ignored the impacts to wildlife caused by fragmenting the forest with miles of road and dozens of drilling pads,
  • Ignored a proposal to require the mine to flare methane to reduce its climate impacts, ignoring a study from the Grand Junction-based Raven Ridge LLC showing Arch Coal could actually make a profit from flaring.

For years, Arch Coal has refused to capture or burn off methane vented from the West Elk mine. The Forest Service has not required Arch Coal to mitigate, minimize or avoid the release of the potent greenhouse gas, even though the agency promised in 2008 that it would “lead the charge” on finding ways to reduce the mine’s methane pollution.

“The West Elk mine expansion will dump more pollution into the atmosphere and contribute to more brown, snowless Decembers,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. “It will torpedo Colorado’s resort economies and lead to drier, more fire prone summers. Keeping Colorado’s roadless forests intact increases our chances of snowy winters, provides water for summer agriculture and reduces the chances of catastrophic wildfire.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has also failed to require Arch Coal to reduce or capture methane emissions, though the state has authority to do so.

“What progress Colorado has made regulating methane emissions from oil and gas production is completely negated when West Elk Mine freely vents this potent greenhouse gas into our air,” said Shannon Hughes, climate guardian at WildEarth Guardians. “Colorado’s clean air and clean energy future depend on the confrontation of senseless plans such as this.”

“The Forest Service here made almost exactly the same mistake they made when a court threw out Arch’s lease in 2014 – touting the economic benefits of keeping the mine open for a few more years while ignoring millions if not billions of dollars in climate costs,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney at Earthjustice. “Putting on blinders to the mine’s greenhouse gas pollution is the opposite of the ‘hard look’ at environmental impacts that the law requires.”

Read the Forest Service’s final environmental impact statement on the West Elk mine expansion.

Read more about the roadless area and what’s at stake.

See photos of the Sunset Roadless Area that the Forest Service has opened to bulldozing and the damage to nearby forests from Arch Coal mining operations.


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