Coal Mine Expansion Threatens Colorado Mountain Backcountry
Conservationists challenge coal mining, bulldozing of more than 6 miles of road, and scraping of nearly 50 well pads in roadless area next to West Elk Wilderness
Earthjustice, (303) 996-9622
Matt Reed, High Country Citizens’ Alliance, (970)
Denver, CO — Conservation groups yesterday filed an administrative appeal challenging
a U.S Forest Service decision approving a coal mine expansion that paves away
for the corporate giant Arch Coal to bulldoze 6.5 miles of road and 48 natural
gas drilling pads within the Sunset Roadless area 10 miles east of Paonia,
The Forest Service’s August 2012
decision is the second within a year rubber-stamping the expansion of Arch
Coal’s West Elk mine into roadless lands that provide habitat for lynx, black
bear, elk and goshawk.
The conservation groups won an
appeal in February 2012 overturning the Forest Service’s initial approval of this
expansion when the Forest Service concluded that it had failed to explain
weakened protections for lynx, bald eagles, and measures meant to prevent
Yesterday’s appeal, filed with the
Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Forester in Denver, argues that the Gunnison
National Forest’s August decision re-approving the mine expansion violates laws
meant to protect wildlife, air quality, and forest lands.
The mine expansion may be a first
test for the
Colorado Roadless Rule, adopted by the Obama administration in July, which
provides a lower level of protection for Colorado roadless lands than for virtually
all other roadless forest lands in the nation. Loopholes built in to the Colorado Rule could permit coal
mines to bulldoze dozens of miles of road on 20,000 acres of pristine forest on
Colorado’s West Slope.
The mine expansion challenges yesterday could turn the
Sunset Roadless Area, which is right next to the scenic West Elk Wilderness, into
an industrial zone of well pads and roads, with an average of 16 wells pads — and
two miles of road — per square mile.
The appeal was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the WildEarth
Guardians, High Country Citizens’ Alliance Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Wild and
Defenders of Wildlife.
“The Sunset Roadless Area is real gem, a beautiful
forest of aspen and giant spruce, beaver lodges and meadows, a home for elk and
bear,” said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for Earthjustice, the public interest
environmental law firm representing the groups. “This is a place the Forest Service should be protecting for
all Coloradoans, not sacrificing to appease special interests.”
In addition to paving the way for
bulldozing in the roadless area, the challenged mine expansion decision allows
continued uncontrolled methane pollution from the West Elk coal mine, one of
the state’s single largest carbon polluters.
Although the West Elk coal mine is underground, safe mining there
requires that methane venting wells be drilled above the mine. The West Elk mine spews millions of
cubic feet of methane pollution every day. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times more heat
trapping ability than carbon dioxide.
Forest Service and EPA data show the amount of methane
vented at West Elk could heat a city about the size of Grand Junction. But the Forest Service has refused to
require the mine to capture, burn, or reduce any of the mine’s methane
“This is a lose-lose-lose proposition,” said Jeremy Nichols,
Climate and Energy Coordinator for WildEarth Guardians. “The public loses their mountain
backcountry, loses millions of dollars from wasted methane, and loses because
of more coal pollution. It’s time
the Forest Service stood up to Big Coal and said ‘no’ to this kind of
Roger Singer, Sierra Club Senior Representative in Colorado,
added: “Why would the Forest Service
sacrifice one of Colorado’s few remaining wild, roadless areas, just to mine
for more dirty coal, further sacrificing air quality and public health for more
Coloradans? This proposal makes
absolutely no sense, it should be abandoned immediately.”
In supporting the mine expansion, Arch Coal argued that
bulldozing miles of road and clearing scores of acres of natural lands for well
pads would not harm the forest because the trees were old and would probably
die soon anyway.
“Colorado’s roadless forests are our natural heritage,” sad
Matt Reed, Public Lands Director of High Country Citizens’ Alliance based in
Gunnison County. “They are
important for recreation, for wildlife, for watershed protection, for our
quality of life, and for our economy.
They deserve the highest level of protection, and we’ll keep fighting to
ensure that they get that.”
The conservation groups’ September 24, 2011 appeal is
available from Earthjustice’s Ted Zukoski (303 996 9622).
The Forest Service’s Aug. 10, 2012 mine expansion decision is
available at: http://bit.ly/Sjkyfh.
of the Sunset Roadless Area (AKA the “Sunset Trail Roadless Areas”) are
showing damage from the West Elk mine’s existing methane wells are available at:
Watch a video discussing the proposed
mine expansion at: