Looking every bit as comfortable in hiking gear as he might be in courtroom attire, attorney Ted Zukoski of the conservation group Earthjustice led a group of environmentalists deep into the Gunnison National Forest east of Paonia on a sunny late-June day.
What's at Stake
Earthjustice is fighting to halt coal mine expansions plans in Colorado’s iconic West Elk Wilderness Area that will destroy pristine public lands and further lock the U.S. into dirty energy dependence.
Forests next to Colorado’s iconic West Elk Wilderness Area provide habitat for the threatened lynx, support 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.
In December of 2012, a Bureau of Land Management decision allowed Arch Coal to expand its West Elk mine in Gunnison County, paving the way for Arch Coal to bulldoze 6.5 miles of new roads, drill 48 drilling pads in 1,700 acres of roadless forest, and waste millions of cubic feet of methane daily.
Although the West Elk coal mine is underground, the coal seams are some of the gassiest in the nation. To get the coal safely, Arch Coal will drill wells above the mine to vent the methane gas into the air. Methane is not only natural gas, a valuable and useful product, but also a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times more heat trapping ability than carbon dioxide. Data shows the amount of methane vented at West Elk could heat a city about the size of Grand Junction. Both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have refused to require Arch to capture, burn, or reduce any of the mine’s methane pollution, or to simply say enough to the wasteful and inefficient practice.
The Bureau of Land Management’s decision follows an August 2012 Forest Service decision to “consent” to the destructive expansion on the Gunnison National Forest. The roadless area at stake includes forest of aspen and giant spruce, beaver lodges and meadows in an area used by hikers and hunters.
Earthjustice is fighting to halt Arch Coal’s plans to 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 per square mile.
An op-ed by Ted Zukoski, Staff Attorney, Rocky Mountain Office
Ted Zukoski, Staff Attorney, Rocky Mountain Office, Earthjustice: “Mining and burning more coal will mean more smog, more toxic mercury in the air, more needless methane emissions and more climate pollution. We’re going to continue to oppose coal mining that puts our forests, wildlife and climate at risk.”