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Lawsuit aims to protect western Colorado’s air from Arch Coal’s West Elk mine

July 26, 2022
Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663, jnichols@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release
Climate + Energy  
#COCleanAir, #KeepItInTheGround
GUNNISON, CO—Conservation groups sued Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’s administration today over its failure to ensure the West Elk coal mine in western Colorado complies with state and federal clean-air laws.

“It’s time to put an end to Arch Coal’s free pass to pollute,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Polis administration must follow through and ensure the West Elk mine operates in compliance with air quality laws and protects clean air and people.”

Located in the North Fork Valley near the town of Paonia, the West Elk mine has come under fire in recent years over its air pollution. The coal mine, which is the largest in Colorado, is a massive source of smog-forming volatile organic compound emissions, as well as methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“This failure to comply with air quality laws is unacceptable to Gunnison County residents and visitors who value clean air, climate change action, and healthy public lands,” said Matt Reed, public lands director with Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “It’s time for action, not more foot-dragging.

In a recent agreement, Arch committed to better control pollution from the mine and obtain a legally required federal air quality permit to ensure compliance. In the meantime, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division has failed to meet a legal deadline to approve the new permit, leaving the mine to operate without oversight.

“This permit has languished for too long, so I’m hoping this lawsuit will push the agency to do its job to protect people and wildlife the way our clean-air laws intend,” said Allison Melton, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “State and federal pollution laws only work if agencies follow them.”

Today’s lawsuit, filed in Gunnison County District Court, asks the court to order the Air Pollution Control Division to approve a legally adequate air-pollution permit for the West Elk mine.

“Coal mines have a devastating impact on air quality and climate, which is why we have these laws on the books,” said Sierra Club Senior Attorney Nathaniel Shoaff. “The Polis administration has talked a lot about how it’s improving air quality, but needs to put those words into action to reduce the impact of Colorado’s remaining coal mines.”

Under the state’s clean air law, major polluters are required to obtain and comply with air pollution operating permits. The Air Pollution Control Division is required to issue these permits within 18 months of receiving an application.

“It is ludicrous that one of the biggest air pollution sources in the State of Colorado is operating without a permit,” said Peter Hart, attorney with Wilderness Workshop. “The State simply cannot ignore its duty to manage emissions that are destroying our climate, contaminating the air we breathe, and shrouding the beauty of the North Fork Valley and Colorado in pollution.”

In this case the state was required to either approve or deny a permit for Arch Coal’s West Elk mine by September 2021. Nearly a year later, the division has not taken action to ensure Arch operates in compliance with state clean air laws.

The lawsuit seeks an order to compel the Air Pollution Control Division to take final action without delay. Groups have won similar suits against the Polis administration, including one over the state’s delay in updating air pollution permits for the Suncor oil refinery north of Denver.

West Elk coal mine

Arch Coal’s West Elk coal mine is the largest coal mine in Colorado.

Other Contact
Allison Melton, Center for Biological Diversity, (970) 309-2008, amelton@biologicaldiversity.org; Matt Reed, High Country Conservation Advocates, (303) 505-9917, matt@hccacb.org; Noah Rott, Sierra Club, 406-214-1990, noah.rott@sierraclub.org; Peter Hart, Wilderness Workshop, 303-475-4915, peter@wildernessworkshop.org