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Court Decision Protects Colorado Backcountry From Coal Mining, Safeguards Climate

June 27, 2014
Jeremy Nichols (303) 437-7663
In This Release
Climate + Energy  
Gunnison County,CO —A federal court ruling today rejected federal agencies’ approval of Arch Coal’s plans to bulldoze roads through 1,700 acres of Colorado’s backcountry, finding that carbon costs were illegally ignored when approving expanded coal mining.

U.S.District Court Judge Brooke Jackson issued a 36-page ruling that held that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management inappropriately overlooked the cost of carbon emissions associated with more coal mining and coal combustion, violating federal law.

The decisions approved the expansion of the West Elk coal mine, which is located near Colorado’s iconic West Elk Wilderness Area in an area called the North Fork Valley. The decisions authorized Arch Coal to bulldoze roads and drill methane venting wells in the Sunset Roadless Area, a remote, pristine forest area next to the West Elk Wilderness and near the town of Paonia, Colorado.

Earthjustice,on behalf of the High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, and Sierra Club filed suit in federal court last year to overturn Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service decisions approving bulldozing 6 miles of road and nearly 50 drilling pads in the Sunset Roadless Area’s aspen and spruce forest to permit underground coal mining below. The roadless area is in the Gunnison National Forest of western Colorado about 15 miles southeast of Paonia, next to the West Elk Wilderness.

“Today’s court ruling will ensure that Federal agencies take the hard look that the law requires at environmental harms before bulldozing roads throughout the Sunset Roadless Area,” said Alli Melton, Public Lands Director for High Country Conservation Advocates. “Pristine forests, such as the Sunset Roadless Area, are part of Colorado’s natural heritage and can’t be replaced. They provide substantial benefit to our local economies, hunting and angling alone brings in over $1billion to the Colorado economy. Clean air and clean water are essential necessities for our quality of life and for ensuring the West Elks remain a world-class recreation destination for years to come. Requiring these values and benefits to be considered is another step to ensuring balanced public land management that supports diverse, resilient local economies.”

Photos of the Sunset Roadless Area, as well as damage outside the area from coal mining, can be downloaded here https://www.flickr.com/photos/wildearth_guardians/sets/72157634452017990/

The area Arch Coal plans for road and drilling pad construction provides habitat for the threatened lynx, is crossed by the Sunset Trail (a backcountry hiking and horseback riding route), and provides a valuable link between the West Elk Wilderness Area and lower-elevation forests along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

The court’s decision halts for now Arch Coal’s plan to begin exploring for coal,which involves building 6 miles of road and scraping 10 drilling pads in the heart of the Sunset Roadless Area. Arch hoped to begin drilling as early as next week.

In analyzing the environmental impacts of expanded coal mining, the feds initially found that the carbon pollution costs could be more than $1 billion annually. However, in approving the new mining, the feds scrapped this analysis, effectively finding that the costs of carbon would be $0. Today’s ruling rejected that analysis as arbitrary.

The Court found that the feds failed to take into account the impacts of global warming from expanded coal mining, both in approving Arch Coal’s plans and in approving the Colorado Roadless Rule, a rule that carved out protections of roadless areas in the North Fork Valley in order to accommodate more coal mining. The Court held that the Forest Service looked at the benefits to the local economy but ignored the global costs of climate change. The Court stated: “It is arbitrary to offer detailed projections of a project’s upside while omitting a feasible projection of the project’s costs.”

“This decision means that agencies can’t bury their heads in the sand when confronting the very real impacts of climate change,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney with Earthjustice.

In addition to finding that the feds failed to take into account carbon costs before approving more coal mining, the court also found the Forest Service and BLM failed to consider the impacts of road construction to those who use the roadless area for recreation, and failed to consider limiting the total amount of road construction.

“This mine expansion was a lose-lose-lose proposition,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “We stood to lose our backcountry at the expense of our climate. Thankfully,the feds will have to take into account the costs of carbon pollution before approving more coal mining.”

The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service decisions challenged in the lawsuit authorized the leasing of 10.1 million tons of coal under 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area, which would expand Arch’s West Elk Coal Mine. At current production rates, the leasing would keep the West Elk Coal Mine operating for about 3 years. Without the leases, the mine would still continue to operate for at 8-10 more years. The Colorado Roadless Rule’s decision lifting the ban on road construction paved the way for decisions that could result in as much as 347 million additional tons of coal to be mined in Colorado.

“BLM’s federal coal leasing program has a massive impact on our climate and public health, affecting the waters we use, the air we breathe, and the wild areas we enjoy. For years, BLM has been telling the public that its individual coal leasing decisions–even those approving hundreds of millions of tons of coal–have no impact on our climate. This decision means that just saying there’s no impact doesn’t mean there’s no impact,” said Roger Singer, Senior Organizing Manager with the Sierra Club in Colorado.

Although the West Elk mine is underground, the coal seams are some of the gassiest in the nation, which requires Arch to drill natural gas wells above the coal seams to vent explosive methane gas.

The methane gas vented by Arch coal is not only a valuable product (natural gas),it’s also a powerful global warming pollutant. According to the Forest Service, the planned methane venting will release the equivalent of 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year,equal to the greenhouse gas emissions from 250,000 passenger vehicles.

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. To view Google images of existing methane venting above the West Elk coal mine, click here >>

The Court enjoined any road construction in the roadless area, and asked attorneys for all parties to discuss how the agencies should proceed in light of the decision.


Other Contact
Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice Staff Attorney, (303) 996-9622, Alli Melton, High Country Conservation Advocates Public Lands Director, (970)349-7104 ext. 2 , Roger Singer, Sierra Club Senior Organizing Manager , (303) 884-0064