State orders coal company to cease expansion of West Elk Mine into roadless area near Paonia

The company that owns and operates the West Elk Mine near Paonia was ordered by the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety Thursday to stop building new roads in a roadless area where it plans to expand coal mining operations.

The state agency’s order followed a ruling from a federal court in Denver earlier this week that knocked down a legal exception that Mountain Coal Company, a subsidiary of Missouri-based Arch Coal, had used for years to mine in a protected area that otherwise would have been off-limits under a state plan protecting intact forests.

The division of reclamation and mine safety’s cessation order prevents further road construction or tree removal within the protected Sunset Colorado Roadless Area, home to lynx, black bears, elk and goshawks. Thursday’s order was issued following the construction of a new road in the protected area by Mountain Coal Company earlier this month, the state agency said.

Mining activities have been allowed in the Sunset roadless area in the past as a result of the “North Fork Exception” to the Colorado Roadless Rule. But in March, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Forest Service had not followed procedures required by the National Environmental Protection Act when it reinstated the exception in a 2016 land use plan.

The Forest Service signed off on the expansion in 2017.

The appeals court this week ordered the exception be vacated by the District Court of Colorado, which happened on Monday. Deck Slone, a spokesperson for Arch, said on Thursday that Mountain Coal Company’s roadbuilding “is lawful” because it is being done under rights granted by the company’s lease modifications.

“Such roadbuilding is also authorized under another exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule, which allows roadbuilding where roads are needed under rights granted by statute,” Slone said. “This includes a valid lease issued under the Mineral Leasing Act.”

He said Mountain Coal Company consulted with the Forest Service before starting any work and that the agency “did not oppose roadbuilding.”

The exception under which Mountain Coal Company operated has long been under legal challenge from environmental groups. High Country Conservation Advocates issued a statement Thursday praising the state’s cessation order.

“We’re pleased that the state is putting a stop to the coal company’s renegade bulldozing, which has already damaged wildlife habitat and roadless forest near the West Elk Wilderness,” said Matt Reed, public lands director for the group. “We’ll be watching closely to make sure the coal company obeys the law.”

Mining in the Sunset roadless area would have helped Mountain Coal Company extract hundreds of millions of tons more coal from under the Gunnison National Forest. West Elk Mine crews would have to carve out temporary roads and clear pads to drill vents that remove methane gases from tunnels so miners could produce safely.

Thursday’s order does not prohibit the company from continuing its current operations below the surface at the mine.

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