West Elk Mine
West Elk Mine is an underground operation in Somerset, CO, owned by Arch Coal. An expansion of the mine has been proposed.
- Owner: Mountain Coal Company L.L.C.
- Parent company: Arch Coal Inc.
- Location: 5174 Old Highway 133, Somerset, CO
- GPS coordinates: 38.927032,-107.463917
- Production: 6,874,101 short tons
- Type of coal: Bituminous
- Mine type: underground, longwall
- Number of employees: 300
On November 8, 2011 the United States Forest Service approved a 1,700-acre expansion of the West Elk Mine on Colorado’s Western Slope.
West Elk is owned by Arch Coal, who praised the decision for its job-saving potential. Environmental groups blasted the USFS ruling for its possible industrialization of the pristine Sunset Trail roadless area adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness Area. The West Elk mine expansion would be mostly underground, however Arch Coal would construct up to 48 well pads and 6.5 miles of roads in the Sunset Trail area in order to vent methane gas from the coal mine.
“The Forest Service is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski. “The administration should not be paving the way for an incursion into roadless lands when a court has just upheld its authority to protect those lands. This administration promised to protect Colorado roadless areas as well or better than the 2001 Roadless Rule required. It doesn’t look like they intend to live up to that promise.”
Expansion found to violate federal law
In June 2014, U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that approvals by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the mine expansion violated the federal law requiring that agencies take a “hard look” at environmental impacts, by failing to take into account the social cost of carbon. The Court held that the agencies looked at the benefits to the local economy for the mine, but ignored the global costs of climate change.
In September 2014 Judge Jackson decided the appropriate remedy was to scrap approval of the lease expansion along with the pro-mining provisions of the roadless rule. He said regulators had to at least explain why they were opting against using the social cost of carbon calculation. Jackson also rejected the argument that if the coal lease were not approved, an equivalent amount would be mined elsewhere, saying "the production of coal in the North Fork exemption will increase the supply of cheap, low-sulfur coal. At some point this additional supply will impact the demand for coal relative to other fuel sources, and coal that otherwise would have been left in the ground will be burned."
Sierra Club attorney Nathaniel Shoaff said the ruling would force the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to pay more attention to climate concerns when reviewing coal lease decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act. The BLM noted a recent decision by the White House Council on Environmental Quality against new regulations governing climate change in NEPA reviews.
Articles and resources
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To see a listing of coal mines in a particular state, click on the map:
- "Colorado coal mine OK blasted as Obama roadless rule reversal" David O. Williams, The Colorado Independent, November 9, 2011.
- Manuel Quiñones, "Greens see judge's rejection of Colo. lease as turning point in climate fight," E&E, September 17, 2014 (subscription required).