Located in the iconic West Elk Mountains just east of the town of Paonia, the West Elk mine is one of the largest coal mines in Colorado, covering more than 20 square miles of the Gunnison National Forest next to the West Elk Wilderness Area. The West Elk mine is the single largest industrial source of methane pollution in Colorado, significantly contributing to the climate crisis. In March the Office of Surface Mining and its officials (OSM) approved the 2,000-acre expansion, allowing Arch Coal to mine nearly 18 million tons of new coal over three years in the Sunset Roadless Area, an undeveloped tract of the Gunnison National Forest.
The lawsuit, brought under the National Environmental Policy Act, challenges OSM’s failure to even consider adopting measures to limit methane emissions from the mine. This failure is particularly problematic given that when the federal coal leases were approved in 2017, the federal government agreed to consider ways to limit methane emissions once the mining was authorized. But OSM approved the mining plan without any further consideration of actions to reduce methane.
The lawsuit also challenges the department’s failure to fully account for the climate implications of authorizing more coal mining and to address the impacts of more mining to the region’s streams and clean water. For example, while the environmental documents relied upon by OSM assumed that there were no perennial springs in the mine expansion area, recent hydrologic information indicates that this is not the case. In fact, there are several perennial springs that may be permanently dewatered as a result of mining activities; yet OSM has never taken a hard look at the risk of destroying these springs.
After Guardians initially filed a preliminary injunction motion, the case has now been fast-tracked for a decision on the merits. A hearing on the case is scheduled for October 17, 2019 in Denver.