Feds relax roadless rule in Colo.
U.S. Forest Service grants the state an exception, again, for expansion of mining.
The U.S. Forest Service has finalized an exception for Colorado in the nation’s rule for protecting last remaining roadless forests: allowing expansion of a coal mine that cuts beneath pristine woods near Paonia in the North Fork Valley.
That decision enabling construction of temporary roads and drilling pads on 19,700 acres — to be published Monday in the federal register — reflects the latest version of a compromise Colorado officials have demanded for years.
A national roadless rule since 2001 has prohibited construction of new roads and other development that could hurt intact forests, and a Colorado version of it adopted in 2012 covers 4.2 million acres in the state.
But Colorado leaders have pressed for the coal mine exception, even after a federal court in 2014 rejected it as likely to worsen climate change. Last week, Forest Service regional director Dan Jiron revealed, via e-mail, the decision to grant a recrafted exception. Jiron could not be reached to discuss it.
This exception could help Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine extract hundreds of million of tons more coal from under the Gunnison National Forest by giving access to surface forests — needed for expanding underground tunnels. 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.
Western Colorado environment advocates blasted the Forest Service decision as bad for wildlife habitat and for the climate — because of the emissions of heattrapping methane and carbon dioxide from burning coal.
“It is wrong to make a decision that is going to result in a significant cost to the world economy and the environment and to Colorado’s environment,” Earthjustice staff attorney Ted Zukoski said.
“The U.S. Forest Service is making climate change worse. They are saying, ‘We are OK with $3 billion more in climate costs’ to society. They are saying, ‘We are OK with millions of extra tons of carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal and methane from mining it.’ ”
St. Louis-based Arch Coal has applied to the Forest Service for a permit to expand the West Elk Mine. Forest Service officials apparently are reviewing the application.
Statewide coal production has plummeted 50 percent since 2004, costing hundreds of jobs. And critics contend the exception to the roadless rule amounts to a giveaway to the coal industry — one that undercuts the U.S. com--