PAONIA, CO – It’s an age-old battle in Colorado: the environmental lobby vs. energy development and local economic development. In what has become the latest skirmish in the conflict, environmental interest groups have, for the moment, successfully blocked the expansion of the West Elk Mine in Gunnison County after filing a complaint with the Forest Service over the initial approval of the expansion.
Without the expansion of the mine, according to documents filed with the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety (CDRMS), West Elk Mine is slated to shut down in 2021.
The Mountain Coal Company, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, operates West Elk Mine. The mine employed 375 people in 2011, had a payroll of $41.2 million, and contributed nearly $24 million in taxes and royalties to the state of Colorado, according to a company spokesman.
Gunnison County Commissioner Phil Chamberland said Gunnison County derives a large portion of its tax base from the mine. Last year, thanks to mining revenue, Gunnison County was able to provide property tax relief to local homeowners. If West Elk Mine were to shut down it could mean well over a million dollars that would have to be made up somewhere else, he said.
“It means a lot to our bottom line,” said Chamberland.
While the mine is in Gunnison County, the vast majority of employees live in Delta County.
Linda Sanchez, the executive director of the Delta County Chamber of Commerce, said the mine was the number three employer in the county.
Delta County Commissioner Bruce Hovde said it would be “devastating” to Delta County if the expansion isn’t approved.
He said that the “vast majority” of his constituents support keeping the mines up and running as long as possible, including through the proposed West Elk Mine expansion.
Commissioner Hovde’s wife, Nancy, who is a member of the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, said blocking the mine’s expansion is “crazy from an environmental point of view and crazy from an economic point of view.” She noted that North Fork coal is among the cleanest in the nation. So clean, in fact, that it is often blended with other coal to lower the sulfur content.
“The region would be devastated if the expansion is not approved. It’s not good for Delta County nor the surrounding area,” she said.
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy coordinator for Wildearth Guardians, who has pushed to shut down the mine expansion permanently, said the decision to halt the expansion approval “underscores the fact that there are a lot of problems with the project.”
When asked about the potential economic and employment impact of the expansion being shut down, Nichols said “the fact is coal mines close.”
Nichols said there needs to be a transition plan for future economic development, but refused to comment on what such a plan might look like.
West Elk Mine was the second largest producer of coal in the state in 2011. Arch Coal is the country’s second largest producer of coal, and its fuel provides approximately 8 percent of the electricity generated nationwide.