Coal Mining Threatens Colorado’s Mountain Backcountry

Conservationists seek stay of Arch Coal mining plans to protect public lands, forests, habitat


Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 641-3149


Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663


Matt Reed, High Country Citizens Alliance, (914) 837-1053


Roger Singer, Sierra Club, (303) 884-0064

Conservationists late yesterday filed an appeal with the Department of the Interior to halt Arch Coal’s plans to bulldoze, road, and drill the forests next to Colorado’s iconic West Elk Wilderness Area as part the company’s plans to expand dirty energy development on public lands.

Beaver lodge in Sunset Trail Roadless Area.
(Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice)
View photos of the Sunset Roadless Area.

“The beautiful forests, ponds, and meadows of the Sunset Roadless Area deserve protection, not destruction at the hands of one of the nation’s dirtiest industries,” said Matt Reed, Public Lands Director for the High Country Citizens Alliance.

View photos of the Sunset Roadless Area.

Earthjustice, on behalf of the conservation groups High Country Citizens’ Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, Rocky Mountain Wild, and the Sierra Club, filed an appeal and a petition for a stay with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, seeking to halt a December 2012 Bureau of Land Management’s decision allowing Arch Coal to expand its West Elk mine in Gunnison County.

“Protecting our forests is good for wildlife, for recreation, for clean water, and our economy,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney with Earthjustice. “BLM should ensure Colorado’s forests are conserved, not chainsawed and bulldozed.”

As part of the mine expansion, the Bureau’s approval paves the way for Arch Coal to bulldoze 6.5 miles of new roads, drill 48 natural gas drilling pads in 1,700 acres of roadless forest, and waste more than millions of cubic feet of methane daily.

“This mine expansion is a lose-lose-lose proposition,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “The public loses their mountain backcountry, loses millions of dollars from wasted methane, and loses because of more coal pollution. This reprehensible waste of irreplaceable public resources that only serves the greedy bottom line of Arch Coal.”

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 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.

West Elk Coal Mine methane venting.
(Doug Pflugh / Earthjustice)
View more Google Earth images.

The BLM and Forest Service decisions to permit the mine expansion 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.

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.

View Google Earth images of current methane venting above the West Elk coal mine.

View images taken by the Forest Service and WildEarth Guardians of methane venting impacts above the West Elk coal mine.

Although the West Elk coal mine is underground, the coal seams are some of the gassiest in the nation. Rather than redirect its coal mining, Arch Coal has instead opted to drill wells above the mine and to vent the 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.

Construction of road and methane venting pad above West Elk coal mine in Gunnison County, CO. (U.S. Forest Service)
View more photos of methane venting impacts.

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.

“Instead of once again willingly allowing more mining of dirty coal tearing up this important wildlife habitat, we feel the agency needs to stop this proposal and instead show support for creating clean energy based jobs,” said Roger Singer, senior staff with Sierra Club in Colorado. “Our appeal is meant to make the agency revisit its decision—we need to protect our public lands from the coal mining that is polluting our air and water.”

In their appeal filed on Monday, the conservation groups ask the Interior Board of Land Appeals to halt Arch Coal’s plans until the board has a chance to rule on the groups’ appeal. The groups argue that the Bureau of Land Management violated federal environmental laws in authorizing Arch Coal’s mine expansion, and that the impacts developing methane venting wells will irreparably alter the Sunset Roadless Area.

The Interior Board of Land Appeals, located in Washington, D.C., has 45 days to respond to the groups’ petition, although it often takes longer.

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