Our View: West Elk Mine Decision One More Cut to Colorado’s Economy

February 23, 2012

Many casual news readers most likely glanced over a recent story about the United States Forest Service high command in Washington, D.C. overruling a decision made by their own staff at the local level to approve the expansion of a coal mine in western Colorado’s North Fork Valley.   Arch Coal spent tens of thousands of dollars paying for an environmental assessment to gauge the impacts of their proposed expansion at the West Elk Mine just to be reminded of the stark fact that it is extreme environmental groups that are in charge in Washington — local analysis be damned.

While supervisors at the local level in the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre Gunnison National Forest office determined late last year that expanding West Elk’s operation would not have a significant impact on the environment, the wise men at the regional office level (read politically motivated bureaucrats) felt compelled to jump in and save the world from this job creating project.   Pointing to the perpetual controversy over so-called “roadless areas” as cover for their meddling, the Obama Administration decided that creating jobs and producing coal wasn’t nearly as important as protecting these areas and the wildlife habitat therein.  Cue the violins.

As with most things in the news, perspective matters.  Delta County (where the majority of these miners live) is currently grappling with a real unemployment rate pushing double digits.  Delta County and Gunnison County not only rely on the coal mines for tax revenue, they are the largest employers in the region by far.  Further, even though the coal mines are geographically located in the heart of the North Fork Valley amongst liberal denizens such as Paonia, people in the area fully understand that without the mines generating economic activity, things wouldn’t only be worse, they would be bleak.

In the case of the West Elk Mine, they have actually been supported time and time again by the local equivalent of the Sierra Club, the West Slope Environmental Resource Council (WSERC), precisely because they understand their operation as well as its impact on the region.   However, this didn’t stop Earthjustice, Wild Earth Guardians and their high paid attorneys from pulling the right strings at the right levels within the U.S. Forest Service to yank the plug on their project.

Everyone understands that Colorado’s “super compliant” coal is a precious commodity in a world focused on reducing emissions and greenhouse gases.  Here at The Observer, we wonder when the fellow on the first floor of the State Capitol is going to stick his neck out and tell his friends in Washington, D.C. that actions such as the recent one involving the West Elk Mine amount to death by a thousand cuts for Colorado’s fledgling economy.

Unfortunately for Coloradans, West Elk isn’t the only project being stalled, killed and remanded for further analysis just like the Keystone XL Pipeline.  When will the Hickenlooper administration finally stand up to the Obama administration and say ‘enough is enough’?

Perhaps that’s just “to be determined,” Colorado.

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