The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its U.S. Forest Service are proposing to reinstate the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule, said the department in a notice to be published in the Nov. 20 Federal Register.
Along the North Fork of the Gunnison River are three deep mines: the Bowie No. 2 mine of Bowie Resource Partners; the West Elk mine of Arch Coal; and the Elk Creek mine of Oxbow Mining. A rule from the late days of the Clinton Administration banned further development in roadless areas of national forests nationwide, touching off years of court battles. The exception for the North Fork was a compromise in that battle.
The Colorado Roadless Rule is a state-specific rule that provides direction for conserving and managing approximately 4.2 million acres of Colorado Roadless Areas (CRAs) on National Forest System (NFS) lands within Colorado. The North Fork Coal Mining Area exception allowed for temporary road construction for coal exploration and/or coal-related surface activities in an area defined as the North Fork Coal Mining Area, which was inadvertently reported as 19,100 acres in 2012, and was actually 19,500 acres.
The Forest Service has prepared a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) addressing specific environmental disclosure deficiencies identified by the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. In addition, the department is proposing to correct certain CRA boundaries associated with the North Fork Coal Mining Area based on updated information.
The Forest Service invites written comments for 45 days in each case beyond Nov. 20 on both the proposed rule and supplemental draft environmental impact statement.
In July 2012, the USDA promulgated the Colorado Roadless Rule, a state-specific regulation for conserving and managing approximately 4.2 million acres of CRAs on NFS lands. One state-specific concern involved continued exploration and development of coal resources in the North Fork Valley area of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests. The Colorado Roadless Rule addressed this state-specific concern by defining an area called the North Fork Coal Mining Area and developing an exception that allowed temporary road construction for coal-related activities within that defined area.
In July 2013, High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, and Sierra Club challenged the Forest Service consent decision to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) modifying two existing coal leases, the BLM’s companion decision to modify the leases, the BLM’s authorization of exploration in the lease modification areas, and the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule. In June 2014, the District Court of Colorado found the environmental documents supporting the four decisions to be in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The deficiencies identified by the court associated with the Colorado Roadless Rule included:
- failure to disclose greenhouse gas emissions associated with potential mine operations;
- failure to disclose greenhouse gas emissions associated with combustion of coal potentially mined from the area; and
- failure to address a report about coal substitution submitted during a public comment period.
In September 2014, the District Court of Colorado vacated the exploration plan, the lease modifications, and the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule, but otherwise left the rule intact and operational.
Said the Nov. 20 notice: “Coal from this area meets the Clean Air Act definition for compliant and super-compliant coal, which means it has high energy value and low sulphur, ash and mercury content. There are two mines currently holding leases within CRAs. One is operating, producing approximately 5.2 million tons of coal annually. The second is currently idle due to a fire and flood within their mine operation. The final rule accommodates continued coal mining opportunities within the North Fork Coal Mining Area. At approximately 19,500 acres, this area is less than 0.5% of the total 4.2 million acres of CRAs. The North Fork Coal Mining Area exception allows for the construction of temporary roads for exploration and surface activities related to coal mining for existing and future coal leases. The reinstatement of this exception does not approve any future coal leases, nor does it make a decision about the leasing availability of any coal within the State. Those decisions would need to undergo separate environmental analyses, public input, and decision-making.”
The operating mine being referred to is Arch Coal’s West Elk operation, which produced 4.2 million tons in the first three quarters of this year, 6.2 million tons in all of 2014 and 5.8 million tons in all of 2013, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. The idle mine is Oxbow’s Elk Creek operation, with MSHA data showing that its last production was in 2013.
Three alternatives are addressed in detail in the SEIS.
- Alternative A is the No Action Alternative, and would continue the current management under the Colorado Roadless Rule without a North Fork Coal Mining Area exception.
- Alternative B (the proposed action), would reinstate the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception, allowing temporary road construction for coal mining-related activities on 19,700 acres of NFS lands within CRAs.
- Alternative C (exclusion of “wilderness capable” lands) would establish the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception, but exclude lands identified as “wilderness capable” during the 2007 GMUG Forest Plan revision process. Alternative C would allow temporary road construction for coal mining activities on 12,600 acres of NFS lands within CRAs.