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By Tripp Baltz
Arch Coal is one step closer to expanding its coal mine in a roadless area of western Colorado following a U.S. Forest Service draft decision.
Environmentalists, however, will continue to fight against the proposal for the West Elk Coal Mine near Somerset., Colo., to expand by 1,720 acres and mine an additional 17 million tons of coal, Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy coordinator for WildEarth Guardians in Denver, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 11.
The Arch Coal Inc. mine in 2016 produced 4 million tons of coal. It is on national forest land in the Sunset Colorado Roadless Area that is protected by the Colorado Roadless rule governing undeveloped areas in those forests.
The Forest Service approved modification of leases held by Arch subsidiaries Ark Land LLC and Mountain Coal Co. LLC in a draft record of decision and supplemental environmental impact statement issued Sept. 8. The modifications address deficiencies identified in a June 2014 court order that said the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had failed to examine the cost of carbon emissions associated with the expansion.
The latest Forest Service decision, now in a 45-day comment period, clears the way for the construction of temporary roads and drilling well pads that will allow for the venting of methane gas and the likely emissions of volatile organic compounds, Nichols said. The companies are awaiting a decision on a lease modification for the underground coal resources.
A spokeswoman for Arch Coal didn’t return Bloomberg BNA requests for comment. Colorado regulators also didn’t respond to requests for comment. The federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement and the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety participated as cooperating agencies.
In its preferred alternative, the Forest Service said minor surface disturbance would occur on forest lands as the coal is removed. The drilling of methane drainage wells is needed for the safety of miners working underground, it said. The Forest Service considered, but rejected as unfeasible, a plan that would allow the companies to drill methane venting wells without building roads to the well pads.
Nichols said WildEarth Guardianswould file an objection to the draft record of decision and supplemental environmental impact statement within the 45-day comment period.
“They are going to trash the roadless areas when they build these roads just to put well pads in,” he said. “Then they are going to vent all this methane gas.”
Nichols said the flaring and venting of methane gas by oil and gas operators is highly regulated in Colorado, but the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission does not have regulatory authority in the matter because Arch is a coal company.
Environmentalists might consider a challenge under the citizens’ suit provisions of the Clean Air Act because the project could result in emissions of volatile organic compounds such as propane, toluene, and xylene, he said.
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