Judge Weighs Jobs, Emissions in Fight Over Coal Mine Approval

DENVER (CN) – A federal judge is considering whether to let a Colorado coal mine operate as planned in January 2020 or bar operations until methane flaring equipment is approved by a federal agency and installed, a delay that could cost 365 miners their jobs ahead of the holiday season.

WildEarth Guardians and several other conservation groups sued the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement this past July over its approval of a 1,720-acre expansion of the West Elk Coal Mine on national forest land in Somerset, Colorado.

The mine operated by the Mountain Coal Company currently encompasses 20,000 acres, including 13,000 acres of leased public lands. The last operational mine in the North Fork Valley is owned by Arch Coal.

Conservation groups argue the Office of Surface Mining skipped steps by relying on an old environmental impact assessment that did not analyze impacts on local fish as well as cumulative impacts on global climate change.

On the ninth floor of the Alfred A. Arraj United States Courthouse in downtown Denver, Sierra Club attorney Nathaniel Shoaff questioned why the federal government didn’t require the mine to construct a methane flare stack to reduce the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Shoaff urged U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson to halt mine operations until the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) completes its assessment of the technology and whether it can be used safely on a mine while employees operate below. If approved, this will be a first for the U.S.

“We’ve been putting forth that methane flaring be required as a condition of mining public resources on public lands,” Shoaff said, calling the government’s refusal to consider the technology a violation of the National Environmental Protection Act.

Arguing for Mountain Coal Company, attorney Michael Drysdale of the Minneapolis firm Dorsey & Whitney said methane flaring could generate revenue through carbon offsets and reduce the operation’s environmental impact – two wins for the mine.

“It’s very exciting technology, it’s very new technology,” Drysdale said. “Where the friction lies is whether or not we can mine until after MSHA completes its review.”

After the expansion permit was approved, the coal company planned to begin mining in January 2020. If there is no work, it will be forced to lay off 365 workers before the holiday season.

Jackson, a Barack Obama appointee, made it clear he does not want to play Scrooge – nor does he want to downplay the importance of environmental concerns.

“At the expense of 365 jobs, how do you feel if you’re the head of a household and you lose your job because they have to study the effects of flaring? I’m with you on the environment, but you also have to consider to people,” Jackson said to Shoaff.

Shoaff shifted the weight back to the federal government, “I’m sorry the issue of methane flaring didn’t get submitted to MSHA sooner.”

Jackson did not indicate when he will rule but concluded the hearing with a wish that both parties resolve the issue outside the courtroom.

The West Elk Mine first began operation in 1982. It sold 4.9 million tons of coal in 2017.

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