A federal judge last Friday put a halt, for now, in Arch Coal’s plans to expand operations at the Somerset West Elk Mine.
The mine operators have been “enjoined from proceeding with the exploration plan in any manner that involves any construction, bulldozing or other on-the-ground, above-ground or below-ground disturbing activity in the subject area” while an agreement with environmentalists is negotiated.
Public lands management agencies failed, Judge Richard Brooke Jackson ruled, to adequately consider global warming in their approval of permits for the West Elk expansion. The judge noted that the federal land management agencies’ “treatment of the costs associated with (greenhouse gas) emissions from the mine was arbitrary and capricious.” The BLM had issued coal lease expansion approvals adjacent to the underground mine in March of last year. Environmental groups sued to reverse the BLM approvals.
“It is arbitrary to offer detailed projections of a project’s (economic) upside,” wrote the judge, “while omitting a feasible projection of the project’s costs (i.e. global warming).”
The judge’s statement was a further criticism of federal lands agency permit approvals that give much weight to the local economic value of public lands resources. It is also another potential blow to the underpinning of Delta County’s battered economy.
The BLM notes, “The majority of (West Elk Mine) employees, as well as their families, live in communities in Delta County. Total direct economic benefits associated with the coal mines within the North Fork Valley exceed $60 million annually.
“Gunnison County receives approximately $2 million annually in tax revenues as the result of the coal mining operations at the West Elk Mine. Delta County receives the indirect financial benefit and tax revenue from the indirect businesses that support the mine, and the tax base from the workers, and their families, that reside in the county.”
West Elk mine currently has approximately 320 full-time employees plus a number of contractors, according to Arch Coal spokesperson Kim Link.
In an email to the DCI, Link stated, “We are disappointed in the court’s ruling. We believe that the ruling contains several serious errors. While concerning (to us), Friday’s ruling will not necessitate any immediate changes at the mine. Coal mining requires complex, long-term planning and today’s ruling complicates our efforts in that regard. We are still analyzing parts of the ruling and evaluating our options.”
The West Elk Mine has been in operation since 1982. In 2013 it produced 6.1 million tons of coal.
Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, Mo., was prepared to begin its expansion work July 1 in the Sunset Roadless Area constructing drilling locations for mine vent bores and access routes. The roadless area issue was one of the points of disagreement in the case. The judge wrote, “The parties cannot agree about whether the area should be called pristine or disturbed. It appears undisputed that there have been human activities in the area making it less pristine than the nearby West Elk Wilderness Area.”
West Elk Mine has won numerous and recent recognitions and awards for its safety record and environmental practices.
A company news advisory states the following:
• West Elk has operated for more than 14 years with perfect regulatory environmental compliance in Colorado.
• The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (CDRMS) recognized West Elk for innovative vegetation and reclamation practices on challenging local topography.
• West Elk’s award-winning practices include recycling water at its new coal preparation plant, which eliminates water discharge and reduces fresh water usage.
• Most notably, employees of West Elk earned top safety recognition for a fifth consecutive year for achieving a peer-best rate among Colorado’s underground coal mines.
• The mine’s 2013 total incident rate of 0.27 per 200,000 employee-hours was 94 percent lower than the national underground average incident rate of 4.91.
• West Elk has logged more than two million employee hours over two years without a lost-time safety incident.
Last Friday’s federal court ruling directs the two sides “to confer and attempt in good faith to reach agreement as to remedies” to the issues including global warming.
Barring an agreement, the dispute will return to court.