Appeals court rules against Forestry Service in Colorado

For a second time, a court has voided the U.S. Forest Service’s North Fork Valley coal exception in southwest Colorado to the Colorado Roadless Rule.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the exemption, applying to nearly 20,000 acres, in a 2-1 ruling that overturned a lower court decision. It agreed with conservation groups that the Forest Service illegally failed to consider an alternative that would have kept 4,900 acres in the Pilot Knob Roadless Area out of the exemption area.

The lawsuit was filed by High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Workshop.

Pilot Knob is in the vicinity of the now-closed Elk Creek coal mine near Somerset, Colorado and currently faces no immediate threat from coal mining. But the ruling also likely will affect Arch Coal’s ongoing efforts to expand its underground West Elk Mine beneath some 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area, which requires building roads and installing surface vents to prevent the buildup of explosive methane in the mine.

The Colorado Roadless Rule generally protects roadless areas in national forest in the state from road-building. The North Fork exception was implemented to protect coal mining in the valley and the jobs and other economic benefits that industry provides.

In 2014, Judge R. Brooke Jackson in the U.S. District Court of Colorado vacated the North Fork exception, finding in part that federal agencies should have quantified the greenhouse gas emissions from coal mining and combustion that the exception would allow. Agencies subsequently did more environmental analysis and the exception was reinstated.

The West Elk Mine is now the only coal mine operating in the North Fork Valley. It had begun roadbuilding and surface disturbance in the Sunset Roadless Area, but Jackson last fall halted that expansion, pending further review by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. He ruled that in considering the mining plan for the expansion, the agency violated federal law in part by failing to consider requiring the mine to flare off the methane produced during mining operations, which would result in far lower greenhouse gas impacts than venting the methane to the atmosphere.

Now the appeals court ruling could mean the Forest Service also will have to do further environmental analysis, considering the possibility of removing Pilot Knob from the roadless exception area, before the exception area again could be reinstated and the latest legal obstacle to Arch Coal’s expansion could be lifted.

Source: The Daily Sentinel