On Jan. 18, the Delta County Commissioners ratified the county's position on reinstating the North Fork Coal Mining Area Exemption to the Colorado Roadless Rule.
The county had commented during the scoping period for the Forest Service's Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS). The county "now strongly supports the proposed action (Alternative B) in the SDEIS to reinstate and North Fork Coal Mining Area Exception to the Colorado Roadless rule." The commissioners' comments were addressed to regional forester Daniel J. Jiron.
District 3 Commissioner Mark Roeber said, "It is especially important for the commissioners to comment for the future of coal mining in this area."
The North Fork Coal Mining Exemption to the Colorado Roadless Rule had been vacated by a federal judge in Denver. That court ruled almost a year and a half ago that Forest Service approvals for expansion of Arch Coal's lease at the West Elk Mine had not met requirements of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act).
So, in September of 2014, the federal district judge in Denver vacated (i.e. nullified) the North Fork Exemption which was essential for West Elk's planned expansion.The judge determined that the effects of "global warming," said to be caused by the production and use of coal fuel, had not been adequately considered.
The judge found that the North Fork Area Exemption, arrived at by a decade-long, multi-party, state and local negotiating process, contained specific deficiencies in the NEPA public process. Those deficiencies as stated by the Forest Service were:
1) failure to disclose greenhouse gas emissions from production;
2) failure to disclose greenhouse gas emissions from combustion; and
3) failure to address the "Powers" report (an attachment to a public comment letter) critical of assumptions about coal substitution.
As a result, the Forest Service undertook to repair the defects discovered by the judge in the original NEPA process and wrote the SDEIS that the commissioners have now commented on.
The commissioners' expressed their satisfaction that the Forest Service SDEIS takes into consideration the economic importance of coal mining to the local economy. The BoCC stated, "Delta County clearly understands the situation the court mandate put the U.S. Forest Service in and commends the Forest Service for including an analysis of the socio-economic impacts of coal mining in our county.
"In addition, Delta County appreciates the FS clearly characterizing the anticipated economic benefits of the North Fork Coal Mining Area Exemption."
In a document attached to the SDEIS, the Forest Service stated, "Continued opportunities for coal leasing in the North Fork Coal Mining Area under Alternative's B and C could result in a stable workforce for an additional 15 to 30 years, depending on production."
The BoCC noted, "We urge the Forest Service to ensure that the economic benefits are qualified so that they are discussed on an equal footing with the potential impacts."
The commissioners also added a note of caution on the Denver court ruling and its appeal to the Federal Social Cost of Carbon (FSCC) standards. The BoCC stated, in its comments, "The SDEIS was a very poor environment to employ the FSCC. It has been stated numerous times in several state and federal documents that the FSCC was not designed for use in NEPA documents or for state-level planning."
Commissioners went on to note that the North Fork Coal Mining Exemption Area "is solely focused not only on the regulated action in a single state, but in a small geographic region in that state [i.e. Delta County]."
Commissioners also noted that the FSCC issues used to support the federal ruling "are compounded in the North Fork Coal Mining Area, where the [economic] benefits are concentrated at the local level and costs are predominantly global. Cost-benefit analysis is at its least useful where the cost and benefits fall on different populations."
The BoCC's comments detail several statistics underpinning the coal mining industry's importance to the county, including the more than $60 million total annual economic contribution to the county the industry makes.