Enviros urge coal mine veto in test of Colo. roadless rule
Written byMANUEL QUINONES, E&E
Environmental groups filed an appeal this week against the Forest Service after the agency gave its consent to an Arch Coal Inc. mine expansion in a Colorado roadless area.
Last month, officials at the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests agreed to the construction of methane drainage wells and access routes for the West Elk mine. Now, several groups -- including WildEarth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club -- are asking the regional forester in Denver to veto the decision.
"The Sunset Roadless Area is a real gem, a beautiful forest of aspen and giant spruce, beaver lodges and meadows, a home for elk and bear," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, which filed the appeal on behalf of the groups. "This is a place the Forest Service should be protecting for all Coloradoans, not sacrificing to appease special interests."
The move is the second time in recent months that the groups have appealed the Forest Service's consent for the mine expansion. In February, the agency agreed to look deeper at the project, only to reach a similar conclusion in the end.
Environmentalists say roughly 6 miles of road and 48 natural gas drilling pads will hurt animal and plant habitats. They also complain about the lack of proper mitigation of the mine's releases of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas (Greenwire, Aug. 10).
Acting Forest Supervisor Sherry Hazelhurst said controlling the methane releases to meet conservationist demands exceeded her agency's legal mandate.
"[T]he Forest Service is not a permitting agency for underground coal mining activities, nor does it have the authority to promulgate or enforce air quality regulations pursuant to the Clean Air Act," she wrote.
It is up to the Bureau of Land Management to agree to lease the federal coal. But Forest Service approval is key before the process can move forward.
BLM has backed lease modifications for the Arch mine in order to prevent the bypassing of 10 million tons of recoverable coal. The Forest Service said it consented to the disturbance of 72 acres to meet that mining goal, which would extend the mine's life for more than a year.
Roger Singer, a Sierra Club representative in Colorado, said in a statement, "Why would the Forest Service sacrifice one of Colorado's few remaining wild, roadless areas, just to mine for more dirty coal, further sacrificing air quality and public health for more Coloradans?"
While the decision would have violated the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, the Forest Service's latest approval falls in line with the state's alternative, which received federal approval in July.
"These temporary roads would not have been allowed under the 2001 Roadless Rule, and the project proponent has said that absent these roads, coal mining would not occur," the Forest Service wrote in its record of decision regarding the West Elk expansion.
The Obama administration has touted the Colorado roadless rule as being stronger than national standards, while still allowing for some roads to accommodate mining and ski resorts.
Critics, however, say it falls short of the Clinton-era rules for forest development (Greenwire, July 7). They say appealing Forest Service approval of the West Elk mine opens a front against the new standards.
In June, the Colorado Mining Association joined other groups, including the National Mining Association, in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to scrap the entire roadless rule system.
President Stuart Sanderson said at the time, "It is clear that the roadless rule will cause harm well beyond the mining industry, impacting agriculture, recreation, tourism and many other businesses which rely on access to lands designated for many uses, which the 2001 roadless rule prohibits."
About the latest appeal, Sanderson said this morning that it appeared to be a "back door" attempt to undo the new standards. He said, "We will be following it very closely and will be defending the Colorado roadless rule vigorously."