The U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued coal lease modifications for Arch Coal Inc.'s West Elk mine in Colorado on Dec. 15.
According to an agency press release, the BLM issued the permits for two coal lease modifications, which total 1,721 acres in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest in Gunnison County, Colo.
The press release said the mine supports high-paying jobs and valuable tax returns for community residents.
"The BLM's approval of the lease modifications will allow Mountain Coal Co, the operator of the mine, to access an additional 10.1 million tons of coal, extending the mine's life and allowing the continued employment of its 222 employees for about three years," the release said.
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said the agency "threw a curve ball at us" by having the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior Katharine MacGregor sign the decision.
"This is a big deal. Politically they are sending the message that Interior is going to make this happen," he said. "Normally these decisions are made by lower level BLM officials."
The move has legal ramifications as well since it precludes the ability to file an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which means work on the expanded lease areas can start immediately.
"Arch can mobilize its bulldozers now," he said, adding that a warm winter in the area is helping provide the coal producer with optimal conditions to start immediate work.
The move also means the decision is effective immediately rather than after a 30-day automatic stay. During this normal procedure, Nichols said a petition for stay could also be filed for further delays.
"Our only recourse right now is to head to federal court," Nichols said, adding that WildEarth Guardians plans on filing litigation by the end of the day Dec. 15 and will likely ask the court for a restraining order to stop Arch from taking action before they begin work on the lease areas.
The U.S. Forest Service consented earlier in December to two federal coal lease modification that would allow the coal producer to expand its West Elk leases by 1,720 acres.
Arch Coal did not respond to a request for comment.
Expanded lease for GCC mine
The BLM also announced the release of the final environmental assessment and decision record for a lease modification for GCC Energy LLC's King II mine in Colorado.
"This decision allows over 100 jobs to stay in our community, along with the economic benefits from federal mineral development," Connie Clementson, BLM Tres Rios field manager, said in a release.
The agency said the expanded lease will likely extend the mine's life for five to seven years, which will provide a continuing supply of compliant coal that can be sold for use in cement manufacturing, local home heating and operating the railroad in Durango.
The BLM release said the agency worked with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to prepare the analysis. OSMRE held a public comment period on the proposed expansion in the summer, after several years of delay.