Forest Service Pushes to Mine Next to West Elk Wilderness, Giving Arch Coal Access to More than 17 Million Tons of Coal
Just days after announcing the U.S. will exit the Paris climate agreement, the Trump administration on June 8 pushed ahead with plans for another damaging action: a plan to approve Arch Coal’s proposal to lease 1,700 acres of roadless wildlands in the Gunnison National Forest for mining 17 million tons of coal. The plan, addressed in a draft environmental impact study, would green light exploratory drilling and road construction to expand the West Elk coal mine in the Upper North Fork of Gunnison County.
This coal mine expansion proposal brings Trump’s dirty energy agenda to Colorado. Pristine forests, abundant wildlife, clean water, and a healthy snowpack are the cornerstones of our local economy and quality of life, and this destructive proposal threatens all of these values.
The Colorado mine expansion plan follows high-profile Trump actions to allow coal mines and coal-fired power plants to foul America’s air and water, including killing rules meant to stop mines from dumping millions of tons of metal-laced waste rock into streams, rolling back measures limiting arsenic, lead and mercury pollution poured into rivers and lakes by coal-fired power plants, gutting protections that limit health-threatening air pollutants from such plants, and, last week, terminating America’s commitment to reduce planet-heating climate pollution pursuant to the Paris Agreement signed by more than 190 nations.
Under Arch Coal’s plan, more than six miles of roads will be bulldozed and as many as 48 drilling pads with vents to release methane will be built in the Sunset Roadless Area, which is adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness. The area is a rolling landscape of aspen and spruce-fir forests that provide habitat for black bear, elk, lynx and cutthroat trout.
Mining in this pristine area will create a spiderweb of roads and industrial facilities on 1,700 acres of public lands, similar to that already encroaching toward wilderness.
The Trump administration’s latest action exploits Colorado’s Roadless Rule loophole, reinstated last year after being thrown out by a lawsuit, which opened the door for road construction within about 20,000 acres of the Gunnison National Forest to subsidize coal mining.
The lease that the Forest Service is poised to approve will give Arch Coal access to more than 17 million tons of coal, extending the life of the West Elk mine by about three or four years. The company already has an estimated 10-year supply of coal under lease.
The West Elk mine was the single largest industrial source of methane pollution in Colorado from 2013 to 2015, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. Methane – an immensely potent greenhouse gas – has more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide over the short term and is a major contributor to climate pollution. The West Elk mine emits so much methane that it wipes out a significant chunk of the benefit from the state’s trailblazing rule to limit waste methane from oil and gas wells.
The impact of pushing more coal into the energy market at a time when the demand for coal has dropped could undercut efforts to transition to a clean energy economy. A 2016 Forest Service study concluded that opening Colorado roadless forests to coal mining would displace renewable energy from the grid.
The Forest Service will accept public comments through July 24. The public can submit concerns about the proposal through the agency’s website: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=32459