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Environmental groups sue to block West Elk mine expansion

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Environmental groups sue to block West Elk mine expansion

A group of environmental groups, including High Country Conservation Advocates, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, filed suit in federal court to block the expansion of Arch Coal Inc.'s West Elk mine in Colorado. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued coal lease modifications allowing the expansion Dec. 15; the lawsuit was filed in the District Court in Colorado the same day.

The BLM issued permits for two coal lease modifications, totaling 1,721 acres in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest in Gunnison County, Colo.

"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 press release announcing the permits said.

The BLM decision was signed by Katharine MacGregor, the deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management of the U.S. Department of the Interior. According to Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, having a relatively senior official sign the document indicated that "they are sending the message that Interior is going to make this happen."

"Our only recourse right now is to head to federal court," Nichols added.

"[D]espite having the benefit of a second opportunity to fully account for the mine expansions' harms, the agencies have, among other errors, again underestimated or obscured the climate pollution impacts of the expansion while improperly boosting the purported economic benefits," the lawsuit stated.

The filing lists five reasons why the expansion should not go forward: first, "the Forest Service and Department of the Interior (the Agencies) failed to take a 'hard look' at the Lease Modifications' climate impacts," contradicting an earlier court ruling; second, the agencies overstated the economic benefits of extending the mine's life; third, "the Agencies failed to respond to an expert report submitted by Plaintiffs identifying clear errors in its socio-economic analysis"; fourth, "the Agencies failed to consider a reasonable alternative aimed at mitigating the methane pollution associated with the Lease Modifications"; and fifth, the federal impact assessment failed to account for the effects of installing roads and pads in the roadless area that will disrupt intact wildlife habitat.