Federal Judge Blocks The West Elk Coal Mine Expansion After Environmental Groups Sue

Grace Hood/CPR News
West Elk Mine, owned by Arch Coal, is the last operating mine in the North Fork Valley. Bowie #2 and Elk Creek mines have closed.

A federal judge has blocked the expansion of a large coal mine in western Colorado after several environmental groups sued. 

Judge R. Brooke Jackson found fault in the federal regulatory process.

He ruled the Interior Department violated federal law by approving the expansion of the West Elk Mine near Paonia. Jackson said the government failed to consider limiting methane emissions and ignored information about potential harm to water and fish.

Allison Melton is with the Center for Biological Diversity, which was part of the lawsuit. She hopes the mine expansion plan dies here.

 “(But if it does go forward,) that at a minimum the government took precautions to at least reduce the really toxic climate pollution it’s been causing,” Melton said.

Arch Coal has been trying to expand its mine into 2,000 acres of Gunnison National Forest for years, and forest supervisors have said in the past that the economic benefit outweighs an environmental threat. Expanding the West Elk mine would extend its life and the jobs of more than 200 people about another three years.

Many local politicians have supported the expansion, including Delta County commissioner Mark Roeber.

“I can guarantee we won’t raise an objection” to expansion of the mine, he told the Daily Sentinel in 2017.

But Melton insists that the harm done to the roadless area, which borders federally protected wilderness, would take the rest of her life to be reversed.

Melton and her nonprofit think focusing on the economics of the mine expansion misses the point, as it will eventually have to close in the coming years, expansion or not. 

“And so we're looking at what is going to be what allows people that have been in this industry to stay in those communities,” she said. “And it's not gonna be this mine.”