Forest Service considers new coal reserves for Arch Coal’s West Elk mine

The U.S. Forest Service in a notice to be published in the Feb. 23 Federal Register will say that the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests (GMUG) is considering whether or not to consent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) modifying two federal coal leases at Arch Coal‘s West Elk longwall mine in Colorado by adding 800 and 922 acres to them.

If the GMUG does consent to lease, it will prescribe conditions (as stipulations) for the protection of non-mineral resources. BLM will, in turn, decide whether or not to grant lease modifications and will further decide, if leased, whether or not to permit on-lease exploration consistent with lease terms. Subsequent mine plan modification activities may be permitted by U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM).

Previous GMUG and BLM analyses and decisions were vacated by the U.S. District Court for Colorado in September 2014 for issues related to econonic analysis on the agencies’ leasing analysis and BLM’s exploration analysis of recreation impacts and a redundant road. A Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is now being prepared to correct court-identified deficiencies and to update analysis, as needed, since the Final EIS in 2012 and BLM’s Environmental Assessment (EA) in 2013. The leasing and exploration analyses will be combined into a single document for agency and public convenience.

Arch Coal’s Ark Land submitted an application in January 2009 and resubmitted in February 2015 seeking to modify two existing federal coal leases owned by Mountain Coal, which operates the West Elk mine.

The proposed action is for the Forest Service to consent to and BLM approving modifications to MCC’s existing federal coal leases, thereby adding 922 and 800 additional acres to ensure that compliant and super-compliant coal reserves are recovered and not bypassed, and to identify stipulations for the protection of non-mineral (i.e. surface) resources. The proposed coal lease modification areas lie in Gunnison County, Colorado, adjacent to the currently operating West Elk mine.

As part of the proposed action alternatives the GMUG Forest Supervisor must decide if the existing stipulations on the parent leases are sufficient for the protection of non-mineral (i.e. surface) resources. If not, additional stipulations that would provide for the protection of non-mineral resources must be prescribed.

It is assumed that longwall mining practices would be used in these new areas. Minor surface disturbance would occur on Forest Service lands as a result of subsidence (slight lowering of the land surface and possible soil cracking along the outside edges) as the coal is removed. In the event that post-lease surface activities are proposed and authorized, other soil disturbance may occur due to temporary road construction and drilling of methane drainage wells (MDWs) which are needed for safety of miners underground. Current technology is not available that would be able to drill MDWs without roads, the Forest Service noted.

Notable is that a controversy over protection of roadless areas in Colorado has centered lately on West Elk.

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.