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Court Decision Protects Colorado Backcountry From Coal Mining, Safeguards Climate

Date
June 27, 2014
Contact
Jeremy Nichols (303) 437-7663
In This Release
Climate + Energy
Friday, June 27, 2014
Court Decision Protects Colorado Backcountry From Coal Mining, Safeguards Climate

Conservationists Force Agencies to Take a New Look At Carbon Pollution Impacts
Contact: Jeremy Nichols (303) 437-7663

Additional Contacts:

TedZukoski, Earthjustice Staff Attorney, (303) 996-9622

AlliMelton, High Country Conservation Advocates Public Lands Director, (970)349-7104 ext. 2

RogerSinger, Sierra Club Senior Organizing Manager , (303) 884-0064


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 theForest Service and Bureau of Land Management inappropriately overlooked thecost of carbon emissions associated with more coal mining and coal combustion, violatingfederal law.

Thedecisions approved the expansion of the West Elk coal mine, which is locatednear Colorado’s iconic West Elk Wilderness Area in an area called the NorthFork Valley. The decisions authorizedArch Coal to bulldoze roads and drill methane venting wells in the SunsetRoadless Area, a remote, pristine forest area next to the West Elk Wildernessand near the town of Paonia, Colorado.

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

“Today’scourt ruling will ensure that Federal agencies take the hard look that the lawrequires at environmental harms before bulldozing roads throughout the SunsetRoadless Area,” said Alli Melton, PublicLands Director for High Country Conservation Advocates. “Pristine forests, such as the SunsetRoadless Area, are part of Colorado’s natural heritage and can’t bereplaced. They provide substantialbenefit to our local economies, hunting and angling alone brings in over $1billion to the Colorado economy. Cleanair and clean water are essential necessities for our quality of life and forensuring the West Elks remain a world-class recreation destination for years tocome. Requiring these values andbenefits to be considered is another step to ensuring balanced public land managementthat supports diverse, resilient local economies.”

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

Thearea Arch Coal plans for road and drilling pad construction provides habitatfor the threatened lynx, is crossed by the Sunset Trail (a backcountry hikingand horseback riding route), and provides a valuable link between the West ElkWilderness Area and lower-elevation forests along the North Fork of theGunnison River.

Thecourt’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 theheart of the Sunset Roadless Area. Archhoped to begin drilling as early as next week.

Inanalyzing the environmental impacts of expanded coal mining, the feds initiallyfound that the carbon pollution costs could be more than $1 billionannually. However, in approving the newmining, the feds scrapped this analysis, effectively finding that the costs ofcarbon would be $0. Today’s rulingrejected that analysis as arbitrary.

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

“Thisdecision means that agencies can’t bury their heads in the sand when confrontingthe very real impacts of climate change,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney withEarthjustice.

Inaddition to finding that the feds failed to take into account carbon costsbefore approving more coal mining, the court also found the Forest Service andBLM failed to consider the impacts of road construction to those who use theroadless area for recreation, and failed to consider limiting the total amountof 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 atthe expense of our climate. Thankfully,the feds will have to take into account the costs of carbon pollution beforeapproving more coal mining.”

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

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

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

Themethane 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 willrelease 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 onGoogle 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
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