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Mountain Coal Co. in June bulldozed a new road -- seen in the center of the photograph -- into the Sunset Roadless Area of the Gunnison National Forest, despite a federal appeals court ruling in March that overturned an exception allowing coal mine development in the roadless area. (Provided by Earthjustice)

Mountain Coal Company has bulldozed about a mile of new road into the Gunnison National Forest’s Sunset Roadless Area barely two months after a federal court ruling that banned the mining company from building new roads or methane-venting drill sites in the protected forest near Paonia.

A flurry of legal filings by conservation groups last week led to a Monday ruling by Colorado’s U.S. District Court in Denver vacating a Forest Service exception that carved out portions of the North Fork Valley where Colorado’s roadless area protections could not hinder expanded coal mining. 

Monday’s ruling came as the courts recovered from the pandemic shutdown. Conservation groups suspect the mining company took advantage of the nearly two-month delay in court activity to build a road before the lower court could enforce an appeals court decision from March. 

The Forest Service came up with the North Fork exception as Arch Resources  —  the nation’s second largest coal company, previously known as Arch Coal — pushed to expand its Mountain Coal operation into about 1,700 acres of the 5,800-acre Sunset Roadless Area in the Gunnison National Forest. The company’s push to lease the federal land began in 2010 with a plan to extract about 17 million tons of coal with an expansion of its West Elk Mine in Somerset. The expansion proposal included the need to build about six miles of roads to drill about 50 vents for methane from the expanded mine. 

The Forest Service crafted an exemption to the state’s 2012 roadless rules to allow the mine expansion into the Sunset Roadless Area, sparking several years of lawsuits, appeals and environmental review as conservation groups battled the North Fork Exception to the state’s roadless protections. Even when the Interior Department issued a moratorium on its coal-leasing program in early 2016, the decision included an exemption for Arch Coal’s expansion of mining in the North Fork Valley. 

The conservation groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity, Wilderness Workshop, High Country Conservation Advocates and led by attorneys from Earthjustice — sued to stop the mine expansion in 2017 and a U.S. District Court judge rejected their arguments. But in March, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overturned that decision, arguing the Forest Service’s review of the mine expansion proposal “failed to provide a logically coherent explanation” for eliminating less harmful alternatives to expanding coal mining in roadless areas of the Gunnison National Forest. 

The appeals court vacated the U.S. District Court’s decision that greenlighted the mine expansion and ordered the lower court to eliminate the North Fork Exception. It required the Forest Service to restart the review of the expanded mine plan. 

But the U.S. District Court was not moving swiftly in March and there was no order vacating the ruling or overturning the exception in April or May. Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley suspects Mountain Coal saw an opportunity in the pandemic shutdown to violate the order before it became official. 

“I can’t speak to their motivation, but I can definitely say that it isn’t surprising to me that the District Court was taking some time given that the courts have been closed down by the COVID crisis so for Mountain Coal to use that to their advantage is pretty unacceptable,” said Robin Cooley, the Earthjustice attorney who argued the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals and who filed a motion last week asking the District Court to record the appeals court decision. 

In filings with the Court of Appeals, Arch Coal argued that if the North Fork Exception was eliminated, its Mountain Coal Co. would not be able to build roads needed for an expanded mine.

“Mountain Coal said what would happen if the court vacated the North Fork Exception,” Cooley said. “And the court vacated the exception and they built their road anyway.”

The appeals court decision was a big win for environmental groups that had spent more than 10 years battling coal mining in the North Fork Valley’s roadless areas. Especially after the Bureau of Land Management in April approved a Resource Management Plan that expanded oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley despite years of work by valley residents and conservation groups to limit the acreage available for energy development.

The North Fork Valley has emerged as a battleground for the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” agenda, where a long tradition of energy development is fading as tourism and agriculture grow. President Donald Trump campaigned on promises to support coal, but the industry is in decline, with mines closing, jobs disappearing and renewable energy surging. Cooley suspects the Trump Administration may be pushing federal agencies to better support the coal industry.

“It’s hard for me to believe the Forest Service did not know about this,” Cooley said. “But I think it’s consistent with the agenda for the Forest Service to turn a blind eye when a company goes out and does something so brazen.”

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins