BLM approves mine expansion in Colo. roadless area

Posted: Jan 3, 2013

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Sunset Roadless Area

The Bureau of Land Management last week approved the expansion of Arch Coal Inc.'s West Elk underground coal mine in what is expected to become a test of the new Colorado roadless rule.

After months of review and appeals by environmentalists, BLM issued a record of decision (ROD) adding almost 2,000 acres to Arch's mining leases within the Gunnison National Forest. The agency said the move will allow the company to recover an additional 19 million tons of coal and expand the mine's life by three years.

The U.S. Forest Service consented to the mine expansion in August. BLM State Director Helen Hankins wrote in the Dec. 27 ROD, "It is my determination, based on USFS recommendation, that there are no significant recreation, timber, economic, or other values that may be incompatible with leasing the lands in question and whether or not to modify the existing leases."

BLM also touted the mine's economic benefits to western Colorado. West Elk employs almost 400 workers, the agency said, and mining operations in the area contribute more than $60 million to the economy. Delta County commissioners expressed support for the expansion.

But environmental advocates, who have been fighting the lease modifications for more than a year, say industrial activity associated with the mine will harm wildlife, destroy habitats and worsen climate change. Support activities for the underground expansion require several miles of road and vents for methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

"The beautiful forests, ponds and meadows of the Sunset Roadless Area are a natural wonderland that deserves protection, not destruction at the hands of one of the nation's dirtiest industries," said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, who has been representing opposition forces.

Groups say mitigation measures in the ROD are lacking. For example, they say, BLM is not requiring the company to capture and sell methane -- a greenhouse gas -- unless it's economically feasible.

"Effects on climate change may occur from mining coal which stem from the release of methane through the mine ventilation system, release of methane through any gob vent boreholes and release of CO2 caused by the burning of coal that is mined," the ROD says.

Environmentalists have been urging BLM to beef up methane mitigation.

"This mine expansion is a lose-lose-lose proposition," Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians' climate and energy coordinator, said in a statement. "The public loses their mountain backcountry, loses millions of dollars from wasted methane, and loses because of more coal pollution."

On wildlife habitat, the Sierra Club and Rocky Mountain Wild threatened to sue the Forest Service last month under the Endangered Species Act over its consent for the mine, saying it threatens the protected lynx.

Groups say they are now likely to challenge the ROD. Litigation is possible if the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals allows it to stand.

Beyond the issues surrounding the mine, the case could become a test of the state's unique roadless rule.

Said BLM's Hankins, "The Colorado Roadless Rule specifically provides for coal mining in this area by allowing the construction of temporary roads."

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