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Coal Company Threatening to Bulldoze, Drill Colorado's Mountain Backcountry

Conservationists File Suit to Save America's West Elk Roadless Area, Protect Wildlife Habitat, and Prevent Pollution

For More Information Contact:
Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice Staff Attorney, (303) 996-9622
Alli Melton, High Country Citizens Alliance Public Lands Director, (970) 349-7104
Oliver Bernstein, Sierra Club, Sierra Club, (512) 289-8618

Gunnison County, CO—Conservationists late yesterday filed suit challenging the federal government’s approval of Arch Coal’s plans to despoil 1,700 acres of the pristine Sunset Roadless Area next to western Colorado’s iconic West Elk Wilderness, an American wilderness gem.

“Destroying the Sunset Roadless Area for dirty energy development is beyond short-sighted,” said Alli Melton, Public Lands Director for the High Country Citizens Alliance.  “Colorado’s mountain backcountry is irreplaceable, it shouldn’t be sacrificed to appease the coal industry.” 

Photos of the Sunset Roadless Area can be viewed and downloaded here >>

Earthjustice, on behalf of the High Country Citizens’ Alliance and WildEarth Guardians, filed suit in federal court late yesterday to overturn Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service decisions authorizing massive new coal development in the Sunset Roadless Area.  The Roadless Area is in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison National Forest of western Colorado and is adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness.

The area slated to be roaded and drilled by Arch Coal provides habitat for the threatened lynx, supports the Sunset Trail, a backcountry hiking and horseback trail, and provides a valuable linkage between the West Elk Wilderness Area and lowland forests along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. 

The decisions approved the leasing of new coal beneath the Roadless Area to Arch Coal and most recently approved a plan by Arch to conduct coal exploration in this same area as early as this week.  The groups are weighing the need to seek a temporary restraining order to prevent Arch Coal from conducting its exploration, which would entail punching more than 6 miles of new roads and carving out 30 acres to construct drilling pads in untouched National Forest land. 

“Protecting our public forests is good for wildlife, for recreation, for clean water, and our economy,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney with Earthjustice.  “Bulldozing roads and scraping well pads for coal exploration and mining will significantly degrade these values to benefit a dirty fuel source..”

The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service decisions authorized the leasing of 10.1 million tons of coal under 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area, which would expand Arch’s West Elk Coal Mine.  At current production rates, the leasing would keep the West Elk Coal Mine operating for about3 years.  Without the leases, the mine would still continue to operate for about 13 years or more.

Although the West Elk mine is underground, the coal seams are some of the gassiest in the nation.  Because of this, Arch has to drill natural gas wells above the coal seams to vent methane gas.  The company’s plans in the Sunset Trail area call 48 well pads, which will simply vent the gas into the air.

The methane gas vented by Arch coal is not only a valuable product, it’s also a potent global warming pollutant.  According to the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, the planned methane venting will release the equivalent of 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, equal to the greenhouse gas emissions from 250,000 passenger vehicles.

“This mine expansion is a lose-lose-lose proposition,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “The public loses their backcountry, loses millions of dollars from wasted methane, and loses because of more coal pollution that fuels climate change and foul the air we breathe.  This a reprehensible waste of public resources meant only to line the pockets of Arch Coal.”

A spaghetti-web of roads and pock-marks of well pads for the existing West Elk mine adjacent to the expansion area can be easily seen on Google maps, and have been well documented by federal agencies and the conservation groups.

To view Google images of current methane venting above the West Elk coal mine, click here >>

“We’re making strides in Colorado to advance clean energy and safeguard our wild places that provide clean water, clear air, and make our mountain resilient,” said Bill Corcoran, Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign Western Regional Director.  “Unfortunately, the push for more dirty energy development threatens to undermine our progress and worse, to endanger Colorado’s new energy economy.”

The groups’ lawsuit challenges the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service on a number of grounds, including that the agencies failed to analyze and assess air pollution impacts and impacts to the Sunset Roadless Area.  The suit also challenges the validity of the Colorado Roadless Rule, which exempted roadless areas in the North Fork Valley of Colorado from protection.


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