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, Colorado.
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 landslides.
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 challenged yesterday could turn the Sunset Roadless Area 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 roadless area is directly adjacent to the scenic West Elk Wilderness.
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 pollution.
“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 destructive expansion.”
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.”