Southwest Colorado Mine Expansion Threatens Public Lands, Climate, Local Residents

Coal companies and their cronies in the Trump Administration are going to every length to get their hands on our public lands and publicly owned coal here in the American West.

The latest is a proposal by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Office of Surface Mining to rubberstamp an expansion of the King II coal mine in southwestern Colorado.

Located near the town of Durango, Colorado, the King II mine isn’t the biggest or the worst coal mine, but it’s a poster child for how the federal government caters to coal at the expense of our public lands, climate, and clean air and water.

Under this new proposal, the Bureau of Land Management would sell nearly 2,500 acres of publicly owned coal to GCC Energy, the owner of the King II mine.

The sale would allow the company to expand the mine further west, getting to within 10 miles of Mesa Verde National Park. The new coal would extend the life of the mine by more than 20 years.

The Mesa Verde National Park region of southwest Colorado was home to Ancestral Puebloan peoples 1,000 years ago.

Although an underground mine, King II still requires extensive surface development, including haul roads, load out facilities, and ventilation shafts. Coal from the mine is also trucked away, meaning its operations have tremendous on-the-ground impacts locally and regionally.

And of course, the coal is ultimately burned, unleashing carbon emissions and other toxic air pollution. In this case, GCC burns coal from King II in cement kilns, itself a carbon-intensive process and major concern for the climate.

Already, estimates indicate the King II mine is responsible for nearly 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. That equal the amount of carbon pollution from more than one million cars (according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator).

That means under the latest 20 year expansion plan, more than 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution stands to be unleashed.

For years, GCC has gotten off the hook in terms of taking full responsibility for the environmental and health costs of its King II mine. Local residents have endured unchecked truck traffic, water contamination, and air pollution. And federal mine regulators have turned their back on any meaningful oversight, writing off the impacts of the mine as “insignificant.”

In 2017, we appealed a prior expansion of the mine, challenging the failure of the Office of Surface Mining to hold GCC accountable to environmental scrutiny related to a massive production increase. While that appeal is still pending, it underscores that the federal government has done nothing but cater to this coal company.

Sadly, the lack of oversight and accountability continues.

Under the latest coal sale proposal, the Bureau of Land Management and Office of Surface Mining have already declared they believe the impacts of expanding the King II mine would be “insignificant.”

The agencies indicated they have no intention of preparing an environmental impact statement to fully account for the mine’s environmental impacts, which is required whenever federal actions pose significant environmental consequences.

Instead, they intend to “streamline” the environmental review, meaning their aim is to fast-track approval by cutting corners on process and analysis.

Map of the King II coal mine expansion area. Click on the map for a larger .pdf version.

And already, the agencies are shutting the door on the public. While people have been invited to submit comments, the agencies have given people only 30 days to fully scrutinize GCC’s plans and offer informed feedback.

For similar coal proposals, the Bureau of Land Management normally gives the public 60 or more days to submit comments.

Given this, we requested an extension of the comment period this week. Unfortunately, the agencies quickly denied our request, another indication that this “streamlined” process is meant to thwart public involvement, not accommodate it.

View of the lands that will be undermined by the King II expansion. The La Plata Mountains are in the distance.

Despite this resistance to public involvement, we will be pushing back and pushing back hard.

Because we simply can’t afford to let our federal government so brazenly cater to the coal industry. What’s happening at the King II mine is emblematic of broader collusion between regulators and companies under the Trump Administration. The mine may not be the biggest or worst, but it’s where we need to take a stand to defend the public interest.

And of course we simply can’t afford to keep mining coal given the state of our climate crisis. Last fall, federal climate scientists said very clearly that “immediate and substantial global greenhouse gas emissions reductions” are needed to “avoid the most severe consequences” of climate change.

While the politics of Trump may be leading officials with the Bureau of Land Management and Office of Surface Mining to deny climate change, the politics don’t change facts.

The reality is, for our climate, we have to keep our coal in the ground.

At the King II coal mine, this reality is imperative. Given the potential consequences to the region’s clean air and water, to nearby Mesa Verde National Park, and to local residents, we can’t afford to let this latest mine expansion move forward even an inch.

Jeremy Nichols

About the Author

Jeremy Nichols | Climate and Energy Program Director, WildEarth Guardians

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