The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, will announce in the Dec. 19 Federal Register that it is reinstating the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule.
The Colorado Roadless Rule is a state-specific rule that establishes management direction for the conservation of roadless area values and characteristics across approximately 4.2 million acres of land located within Colorado in Roadless Areas on National Forest System (NFS) lands. The North Fork Coal Mining Area exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule provides for the construction of temporary roads, if needed, for coal exploration and coal-related surface activities in a 19,700-acre area defined as the North Fork Coal Mining Area.
The Colorado Roadless Rule was promulgated in July 2012, but the U.S. District Court for the State of Colorado ruled in a case brought by environmental groups that the environmental analysis performed by the U.S. Forest Service on behalf of the USDA was deficient. The Forest Service prepared a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to respond to the specific deficiencies identified in that U.S. District Court ruling. In addition, an administrative correction is being conducted by the USDA for Colorado Roadless Area (CRA) boundaries associated with the North Fork Coal Mining Area based on updated information. The correction adds an additional 200 acres to the roadless area in the 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule. These boundary corrections address changes identified by new road survey information.
This rule is effective 60 days after publication in the Dec. 19 Federal Register.
The final rule reinstates the exception for temporary road construction and reconstruction within the North Fork Coal Mining area that would facilitate future coal exploration and potential development, which in turn preserves access to approximately 172 million tons of coal. North Fork Valley coal meets the definition for compliant and super-compliant coal, indicating the coal has high energy value and low sulfur, ash, and mercury content, making it desirable for generation of electricity. The final rule does not authorize any coal leasing, exploration, or development. These actions would only occur after additional environmental review, public involvement, and agency decision-making.
This action affects three longwall-equipped mines located along the North Fork of the Gunnison River, only one of which is currently producing. U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data shows that Arch Coal‘s West Elk mine is active and produced 2.4 million tons in the first quarter of this year, with 5.1 million tons produced in all of 2015. MSHA data shows Oxbow Mining‘s Elk Creek mine as “abandoned,” with last production in 2013. The Bowie No. 2 mine of Bowie Resources is shown by MSHA as currently active, but it produced no coal in the second and third quarters of this year, and only 33,395 tons in the first quarter of 2016. It turned out 1 million tons in all of 2015.