In a devastating blow to the Colorado wilderness, the U.S. Forest Service has agreed to allow Arch Coal to expand their West Elk mine into 6.5 miles of roadless forest in Colorado. This means that as soon as Arch Coal gets the “ok,” they will begin leveling a formerly pristine part of America’s beautiful wilderness.
The ruling of the Forest Service came after an appeal by conservation groups, led by EarthJustice, who hoped that the agency would have the decency to prevent the dirty energy industry from destroying a vital part of the environment.
The appeal filed in September 2012 with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Forester in Denver, sought to overturn an August decision affirming Arch Coal’s West Elk mine expansion into roadless lands that provide habitat for lynx, black bear, elk and goshawk. The conservation groups argued that the mine expansion violates laws meant to protect wildlife, air quality, and forest lands, as well as the Colorado Roadless Rule.
“Smokey Bear has turned his back on Colorado’s natural, roadless lands,” said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for Earthjustice, the public interest environmental law firm representing the groups. “Instead, the Forest Service has literally paved the way for a coal mega-corporation to destroy real bear habitat. The Sunset Roadless Area is a beautiful forest of aspen and giant spruce, beaver lodges and meadows, a home for elk and hawks. This is a place the Forest Service should be protecting for all Coloradoans, not sacrificing to appease special interests.”
In February of this year, EarthJustice and the environmental groups they represent won a legal battle against the Forest Service over the expansion of the mine. During this fight, the Forest Service was unable to provide an adequate explanation of what they would do to prevent the destruction of the habitats of endangered bald eagles and lynx, as well as what measures would be put in place to prevent landslides.
But thanks to a rule put in place by the Obama Administration this summer – known as the “Colorado Roadless Rule” – the guidelines and standards for permitting were weakened to the point that Arch Coal was easily able to secure a victory.
Most of the area where Arch Coal will be expanding will now be bulldozed to the ground to make way for mine vents, roads, and padding. Again, from EarthJustice:
Although the West Elk coal mine is underground, safe mining there requires that methane venting wells be drilled above the mine. The West Elk mine spews millions of cubic feet of methane pollution every day. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times more heat trapping ability than carbon dioxide. Forest Service and EPA data show the amount of methane vented at West Elk could heat a city about the size of Grand Junction. But the Forest Service has refused to require the mine to capture, burn, or reduce any of the mine’s methane pollution.
“This is a lose-lose-lose proposition,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Coordinator for WildEarth Guardians. “The public loses their mountain backcountry, loses millions of dollars from wasted methane, and loses because of more coal pollution. The Forest Service needs to stand up to Big Coal, but now with a weaker Colorado Rule in place, this kind of destructive expansion could unfortunately happen again and again and again.”
EarthJustice has not given up the fight for Colorado’s wilderness, and has indicated that they will continue to fight for the interest of both citizens of the area, as well as the environment that will be destroyed by this decision.