Feds release enviro review on Colowyo coal mine expansion area in Colorado

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said in a Jan. 19 notice that they have completed an Environmental Assessment (EA) and unsigned Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), that evaluate the environmental effects of the proposed mining plan modification for the Collom Permit Expansion Area at the Colowyo coal mine in Colorado.

The EA will also be used by the BLM Little Snake Field Office for a decision to modify Federal Lease COC–0123475 01 to add 27.84 acres of unleased federal land within the existing, state-approved mine permit boundary. Those lands would only be utilized for surface activities and no federal coal resources would be mined there. OSMRE and BLM will accept written or emailed comments submitted during the period of Jan. 19 through Feb. 18.

The EA analyzes the potential environmental effects of a mining plan modification proposed by the Colowyo Coal Co. LP to surface mine federally leased coal within the Colowyo Coal Mine Collom Permit Expansion Area. The Colowyo Coal Mine is located approximately 26 miles southwest of Craig, Colorado, and 22 miles north-northeast of Meeker, Colorado, in southwest Moffat and northern Rio Blanco counties.

Colowyo, operator of the Colowyo Coal Mine, is a limited partnership, which is indirectly owned by Western Fuels–Colorado, which is owned by Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association. Colowyo currently operates the Colowyo Coal Mine on Federal Coal Leases COC-29225 and COC-29226 and is producing coal from the South Taylor Pit.

Currently, the Colowyo mine produces approximately 2.3 million tons per year (mtpy) and provides coal primarily to the Craig Generation Station located in Craig, Colorado. However, the mine has produced coal at a maximum rate of 6.4 mtpy in the past (2004) and sold coal on the open market to several organizations including, but not limited to, Arizona Electric Power Cooperative, American Electric Power, Celanese and the City of Colorado Springs.

“Colowyo has also responded to numerous requests for smaller samples of coal to conduct test burns for possible future contracting,” said the EA. “Colowyo is actively marketing its coal and if a contract is secured would ship to other users. The Colowyo Coal Mine ships coal to customers via an on-site rail spur connected to a Union Pacific main rail line that can accommodate coal shipments to anywhere in the country.”

In order to timely plan for the depletion of coal reserves in the current mining area and ensure continued mining operations, on Jan. 26, 2009, Colowyo submitted an application for a permit revision to a state agency to expand the boundary approved in the existing permit. The revision proposed adding approximately 16,824.8 acres of a combination of private, federal and state surface lands and subsurface mineral estate to the previously approved permit area of 12,250.95 acres, also comprised of a mixture of private, federal and state surface lands and mineral estate, and proposed surface mining in two new pits. In May 2013, the state approved Colowyo’s Permit Revision No. 3 (PR 03) for the Collom Permit Expansion Area.

The Permit Expansion Area includes all or portions of Colowyo’s federal coal leases, COC-29225, COC-0123475 01, COC-0123476 01, and COC-68590, the Jubb State Lease 257-13s, private lands owned by Colowyo, and the unleased federal lands. Within the Collom permit expansion area, 637.0 acres of surface and associated mineral estate are owned by the state of Colorado; 2,525.18 acres of surface estate and 5,743.50 acres of mineral estate in the federal coal leases are managed by the BLM; and 13,662.61 (surface and mineral estate) acres are privately owned by Colowyo. The proposed project is located within a portion (4,823 acres) of the overall Permit Expansion Area that includes two of the federal leases, COC-0123475 01 and COC-68590, 27.84 acres of unleased federal land (both surface and mineral estate) and additional Colowyo owned private surface and coal lands.

The proposed action (Alternative A) under the EA is to mine coal approximately three miles northwest of Colowyo’s existing mining operations in the South Taylor Pit. The proposed mining plan modification would involve developing two mine pits, the Collom Lite Pit and the Little Collom X Pit, using truck/shovel, dragline and highwall surface mining techniques as well as constructing haul roads and mine support facilities. The mined coal would be trucked to a primary crusher and then transported northeast along the west fork and main stem of Jubb Creek for approximately six miles to the existing Gossard loadout.

An action alternative (Alternative B) is also analyzed that proposes mining only the Collom Lite Pit, designs several mine components (e.g. facilities, topsoil stockpiles, and the temporary overburden stockpile) to enhance protection of Greater sage-grouse (GRSG) and its habitat, and includes specific additional measures not included in Alternative A to protect GRSG and its habitat. The approval of the lease modification would be necessary to implement both Alternative A and Alternative B.

Of the 16,824.79 acres currently contained within the state-approved permit revision area, approximately 2,090.5 acres would be disturbed under Alternative A over the anticipated 20 to 40 year life of the project. Under Alternative B, approximately 2,637 acres would be disturbed over the anticipated shorter 16 to 36 year life of the project when compared to Alternative A.

Tri-State says this project will have no major environmental impact

“It’s important that the public review the draft environmental assessment and provide comments to the Office of Surface Mining,” said Lee Boughey, senior manager, corporate communications for Tri-State Generation and Transmission, in a Jan. 18 statement. “We believe the project will have no significant impact on the environment and the revised mining plan should be approved.”

Tri-State said the project will sustain 220 mine jobs and operations that annually have a $200 million-plus impact to the regional economy and that make an estimated annual contribution of $12 million in local, state and federal tax revenue.  Communities and organizations in Northwest Colorado have recently launched an effort to educate the public on the value of coal mining in the region and encourage participation in the public comment period for Colowyo EA.

“Colowyo Coal Company is required to develop the coal leases that were previously issued by the BLM in 1982 and 2007,” said Boughey. “A minor lease modification proposed to protect Greater Sage Grouse habitat is less than 160 acres and is listed by the BLM as potentially covered by a pause exemption from the recently announced leasing moratorium.

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released final rules to regulate and reduce CO2 emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Power Plan. According to the EPA, coal will continue to provide 28% to 32% of the nation’s electricity generation mix. “Even as the U.S. and individual states develop plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, coal-based electricity will continue meeting the need for affordable and reliable power,” said Boughey. “There is a continued need for the development of coal resources, and the Collom project is a responsible option to provide a long-term source of clean, low-cost fuel.” 

The EA being developed for the Collom project is separate from the EA that was successfully completed for the South Taylor area of Colowyo Mine in 2015 by OSMRE as a result of a court order. In fact, federal court decisions supporting additional analysis on federal coal leases have been incorporated into the ongoing development of the Collom EA.

Also as a result of a court action, a separate EA is under development by OSMRE for the Trapper Mine, which also supplies coal to Craig Station. The draft Trapper Mine EA is expected to be released for public comment in the coming weeks.

“It is important for the public to review and comment on both the Colowyo Mine and Trapper Mine environmental assessments,” said Boughey. “The continuation of operations at both mines is critical to the communities of Northwest Colorado.”

Tri-State is the not-for-profit wholesale power supplier to 44 electric cooperatives and public power districts that serve 1.5 million consumers throughout 200,000 square-miles of Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.