Environmental groups are taking a novel approach to fighting coal mines. They’re asking the federal government to examine the impact--not just of the mining operations but also the coal as it’s burned in far off power plants. This tactic is being tested against an expansion of the Elk Creek mine in the small western slope town of Somerset. Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus reports on how this fight may determine future of coal mining in the state.
A sign welcoming drivers to Somerset reads: “mining town since 1896.” The town is just a collection of dozen homes along the highway with no cell phone service and some of the state’s largest coal mines.
Oxbow Mining Superintendent Jenz Lang hops into his work truck. He drives from the sunny surface into a dark tunnel that leads straight down into the massive Elk Creek Mine.
Lang: It’s like a small town, I mean, you know.
The headlights of the truck illuminate pitch-black tunnels of coal snaking in all directions. Lang has been a coal miner most his life. And he thinks the energy dense rock has gotten a bad rap from environmentalists.
Lang: If you want windmills you have to mine the material to make them. You have to mine coal to make the steal to make a windmill, it doesn’t work any other way.
Despite that, this mine is in jeopardy of shutting down early if Oxbow Mining can’t secure a new lease to take nearby deposits of coal. Jim Cooper is President of Oxbow.
Cooper: We put in for that lease September the 4th of 2006, five years later we still don’t have it.
That’s because environmental groups have challenged the lease every step of the way. Going so far as to take the Bureau of Land Management to court forcing it to reopen a lengthy environmental review.
Cooper: If we don’t get those leases, we will have less opportunity for 360 employees and their families that we support. And immediately, before the end of this year we will have some layoffs.
And these are high paying jobs in an area with few opportunities. But those fighting coal say that’s not the point.
Nichols: It’s the dirtiest of the dirty fuels.
Jeremy Nichols is a Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. He admits coal has helped build America--but at a price. One estimate cited by the Union of Concerned Scientists puts the national cost of health care associated with toxic emissions at 100-billion dollars per year.
Nichols: We’re starting to feel those costs, whether it be through increased air pollution increased public health impacts associated with coal burning, and I think most fundamentally climate change or global warming and the release of carbon dioxide emissions.
Sierra Club Colorado joined WildEarth Guardians in the suit against the expansion. Sierra Club organizer Rodger Singer says this is much bigger than just the Elk Creek Mine.
Singer: This is about coal production cradle to grave and looking at all the impacts that occur during production, transportation and the eventual burning of coal.
That’s the new legal approach to challenging a coal mine--analyzing the broad impacts of the coal once it leaves the mine. And a judge has ordered the Bureau of Land Management to consider that. Steven Hall is a spokesman for the BLM. He says trying to analyze the impact of a single coal mine on global climate change is a convoluted and time-consuming. undertaking.
Hall: I think now we’re getting to the point in the North Fork Valley that if we don’t make some action on leases in the next 1 to 2 years, you will start to see coal mines close down and that will have a devastating effect on the economy.
Local environmental groups meanwhile are keenly aware of that impact on the economy. And they have split with the groups challenging the mine. Steve Wollcott is a coal expert for the Conservation Center in Paonia.
Wollcott: So it seems a little strange to try to shut these particular mines down that are producing the cleanest coal, and are allowing the power plants in the eastern part of the country to meet environmental requirements.
The coal has a very low sulfur content--making it some of the cleanest burning coal in the world.
Back at the mine, Oxbow President Jim Cooper is worried for his miners. The expansion lease is just to keep his crews working while the company looks for a new mine nearby. But now the prospect of getting that done before he runs out of coal here is bleak.
Cooper: That’s probably not practical because we are going to face the lawsuits, the challenges that go on out there.
He’s right. WildEarth Guardians says if this lease expansion is approved--then they’ll go back to court again to stop it. BLM says it’ll have a decision on the lease in a month or two.
[Photo: Ben Markus]