With decisions on rules that will affect coal mining in the North Fork Valley on the horizon, the White House Office of Management and Budget met last week with mine officials, representatives of local government and others from the Western Slope to hear how the rules are affecting coal mining in the North Fork Valley.
Two main issues are at stake, said Paonia Mayor Pro Tem David Bradford, who traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the meetings. They include the U.S. Forest Service 2001 Roadless Rule and development of the Stream Protection Rule proposed by the USDI Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
"It was a quick trip," said Bradford. With a decision on Colorado's Roadless Rule expected soon, trustees gave their blessings at the Oct. 25 board meeting for him to travel to D.C. and represent the town in its support of coal mining. Early the next morning he was on a flight to D.C.
"The board fully supports future coal-mine activities" in the North Fork area, said Mayor Charles Stewart. "Continued operation of the mine is critical to the economic health of this valley and this town."
Club 20 arranged the meetings with the OMB and Club 20 Executive Director Christian Reece and member Kathy Welt, with Arch Coal also traveled to Washington, said Bradford. His air fare and lodging were picked up by the National Mining Association. Bradford said he hesitated, but made the last-minute decision to go. "I've been told that they're willing to listen because of the effects of this rule-making on the local communities," he said. "It puts a representative of the town at the meeting.
"What's at stake is the current 220 jobs," and the future of coal mining in the North Fork area, said Delta County Commissioner Mark Roeber following the meetings.
The 2001 Roadless Rule was established by the U.S. Forest Service to limit construction of roads and their environmental impacts on 58.5 million acres of roadless areas on public lands. In 2013 a federal judge enjoined the Forest Service from implementing the rule.
The Forest Service has published a proposal to revise the rule, which, according to the agency, was estimated to result in the loss of more than 4,500 jobs and about $200 million in economic impact.
Also at stake is the Colorado Roadless Rule (CRR), which was about eight years in the making and went into effect in July 2012. The rule provides management direction on 4.2 million acres of forest service land in Colorado and was seen as a balance between protection of roadless areas and uses in those areas. Written into the rule is the North Fork Exception, which, in part, allows for temporary road construction on more than 19,000 acres of public land in the North Fork Coal Mining Area.
In 2013 environmental groups challenged the North Fork exception, and in June 2014, a U.S. District Court judge found the CRR Environmental Impact Statement to be in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, since it did not sufficiently address greenhouse gas emission from coal-related operations. The Bureau of Land Management placed a moratorium on new coal lease sales, which affected plans by Arch Coal to expand its West Elk Mine in Somerset.
The CRR was a collaborative effort involving a broad spectrum of people, including local governments, nonprofits, organizations and citizens, said Roeber. For the government to turn its back on that effort "doesn't speak well for the future of collaboration."
In 2015 the Forest Service proposed a supplemental EIS and announced its intent to reinstate the North Fork Valley exemption. During the public comment period on the EIS, the Forest Service held open houses in Paonia and Denver, and more than 119,000 public comments were received.
Before the meetings Bradford and others met with Congressman Scott Tipton's legislative director, Dustin Sherer and representatives of Senators Bennet and Gardner's offices. Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Mining Association, gave a history of roadless rule meetings. They also met at the National Mining Association office with representatives from Arch Coal.
The office of OMB is the largest component of the Executive Branch and is charged with enforcing and implementing federal policy. "To get 45 minutes with the OMB is a big deal," said Bradford. Delta County Administrator Robbie LeValley, Roeber, Stewart, representatives of local mining companies including Chris Hansen, director of regulatory compliance and government relations for Bowie Resources, joined the meeting via conference call.
The first meeting was with policy analyst Vlad Dorjets. Bradford read from two letters submitted in 2014 and last July by the Paonia Board of trustees to the BLM in support of the exemption. He stated that in 2008, $210,000, or 24 percent of Paonia's general fund budget, came from mineral leasing and mining severance taxes; by 2016 the town received just under $37,000, or 6 percent of budget in leasing and severance taxes.
Mayor Stewart spoke of ripple effect of the mine closures, said Bradford. He told the OMB that the mine payroll dropped from $100 million before layoffs began to $30 million today. The ancillary support provided by miners also benefits local ambulance and fire departments. When miner lost jobs, those organizations lose both manpower and their expertise.
"Vlad seemed to pay close attention," said Bradford.
A second meeting with OMB policy analyst Stuart Levenbach was on the Stream Protection Rule. The proposed rule is intended to better protect waterways, fish, wildlife and related environmental values from the impacts of surface coal mining operations. It grew out of concerns about the environmental consequences of mountain top mining in the eastern U.S., said Bradford. The information used to develop the draft rules contained no data on streams west of the Mississippi, said Bradford. "If they're going to apply the law nationwide, they should include data from across the country."
Commissioner Roeber said the rule doesn't take into account the difference between mountain-top removal practices used in the east and the underground mining of the west. "It's a really harmful rule" said Roeber. "With all the regulations in place, its questionable if it's even needed."
Bradford is a retired rangeland specialist with the U.S. Forest Service and spent the last 20 years of his career in Paonia Ranger District of the Gunnison National Forest. "Never testified for something like this," he said.
OMB representatives didn't give a date for when decision are due, but they will likely be announced after the Nov. 8 elections, said Roeber.