West Elk Mine

From Global Energy Monitor
This article is part of the Global Coal Mine Tracker, a project of Global Energy Monitor.
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West Elk Mine is an underground coal mine, operated Mountain Coal Company LLC, a subsidiary of Arch Coal Inc., producing 4.6 million short tons per annum, in Somerset, Colorado, United States.


The map below shows the location of the mine in Somerset, Colorado, United States.

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Located in the West Elk Mountains just east of the town of Paonia, the West Elk mine is one of the largest coal mines in Colorado. It covers more than 20 square miles of the Gunnison National Forest next to the West Elk Wilderness Area.[1]

West Elk employs some 300 people and is the last coal mine still operating in Colorado's North Fork Valley.[2] It is also the largest single industrial point source of methane emissions in the state.[1] The mine is served by Union Pacific Railroad.[3]

Mine Details

  • MSHA ID: 503672
  • Start Year: 1982
  • Sponsor: Mountain Coal Company LLC
  • Parent Company: Arch Coal Inc.
  • Location: Somerset, Colorado, United States
  • GPS Coordinates: 38.9266854, -107.4436233 (exact)
  • Production Capacity: 4,6748,33 tons (2018)[4]
  • Coal type: Bituminous
  • Mine Type: Underground
  • Equipment: Longwall
  • Number of Employees: 300
  • Mine Size:
  • Mineable Reserves: 53.9 million tons (Proven and Probable, 2018)
  • Mine Status: Operating

Project Expansion Details

  • Status: Proposed
  • Production Capacity: 4.5 million tons per year (proposed)
  • Mineable Reserves: 10.1 million tons
  • Mine Expansion Size: 1,720 acres[5]
  • Start Year:
  • Source of Financing:


An expansion of the mine was proposed in November 2011. The U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) approved the expansion on March 15, 2019.[6]

In November 2011, the United States Forest Service (USFS) approved a 1,700-acre expansion of the West Elk Mine on Colorado’s Western Slope. It is estimated that the expansion would add about two years to the mine's life and allow for the mining of 10 million tons of coal.[2]

Arch Coal, who owns the mine, praised the USFS decision for its job-saving potential. Environmental groups blasted the ruling for its possible industrialization of the pristine Sunset Trail Roadless Area adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness Area. The West Elk mine expansion would be mostly underground, however, Arch Coal would construct up to 48 well pads and 6.5 miles of roads in the Sunset Trail area in order to vent methane gas from the coal mine.

“The Forest Service is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski. “The administration should not be paving the way for an incursion into roadless lands when a court has just upheld its authority to protect those lands. This administration promised to protect Colorado roadless areas as well or better than the 2001 Roadless Rule required. It doesn’t look like they intend to live up to that promise.”[7]

On March 15, 2019, the OSMRE approved the expansion of the West Elk Mine in Somerset into the Sunset Roadless Area.[6]

Expansion found to violate federal law

In June 2014, U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that approvals by the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the mine expansion violated the federal law requiring that agencies take a “hard look” at environmental impacts, by failing to take into account the social cost of carbon. The Court held that the agencies looked at the benefits to the local economy for the mine, but ignored the global costs of climate change.

In September 2014, Judge Jackson decided the appropriate remedy was to scrap approval of the lease expansion along with the pro-mining provisions of the Roadless Rule. He said regulators had to at least explain why they were opting against using the social cost of carbon calculation. Jackson also rejected the argument that if the coal lease were not approved, an equivalent amount would be mined elsewhere, saying "the production of coal in the North Fork exemption will increase the supply of cheap, low-sulfur coal. At some point this additional supply will impact the demand for coal relative to other fuel sources, and coal that otherwise would have been left in the ground will be burned."[8]

Sierra Club attorney Nathaniel Shoaff said the ruling would force the BLM and the USFS to pay more attention to climate concerns when reviewing coal lease decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The BLM noted a recent decision by the White House Council on Environmental Quality against new regulations governing climate change in NEPA reviews.[8]

On July 2, 2019, five conservation groups (WildEarth Guardians, High Country Conservation Advocates, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Wilderness Workshop) sued the Trump administration and called on a federal judge to block approval of Arch Coal’s West Elk mine expansion.[1]

In November 2019, in response to the lawsuit, a federal judge blocked the expansion after finding fault in the federal regulatory process. The judge ruled that the Interior Department violated federal law by failing "to consider limiting methane emissions and ignor(ing) information about potential harm to water and fish," according to a Colorado Public Radio News article.[9]

Then, in February 2020, the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety ordered the coal company to stop building new roads in a roadless area where it plans to expand coal mining operations.[10]

Articles and resources

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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Lawsuit Seeks Court Order to Stop Colorado Coal Mine Expansion Threatening Climate, National Forest" Center for Biological Diversity, July 3, 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Feds approve coal mine's expansion in roadless area" The Daily Sentinel, March 19, 2019.
  3. "West Elk Mine" Union Pacific Railroad, accessed October 2019.
  4. "EIA table 9 2019" EIA.gov accessed June 2020
  5. "West Elk Mine Approved for 1,720-Acre Expansion" The Crested Butte News, March 20, 2019.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Record of Decision for the West Elk Mine Mining Plan Modification Adoption U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, March 15, 2019.
  7. "Colorado coal mine OK blasted as Obama roadless rule reversal" David O. Williams, The Colorado Independent, November 9, 2011.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Greens see judge's rejection of Colo. lease as turning point in climate fight," Manuel Quiñones, E&E, September 17, 2014 (subscription required).
  9. Stina Sieg, "Federal Judge Blocks The West Elk Coal Mine Expansion After Environmental Groups Sue," "CPR News," November 8, 2019.
  10. JOHN AGUILAR, "State orders coal company to cease expansion of West Elk Mine into roadless area near Paonia," "The Denver Post," June 18, 2020.

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