DENVER— A federal judge approved a consent agreement today that requires Mountain Coal Co., a subsidiary of Arch Coal, to operate pollution-control equipment and obtain and comply with a Clean Air Act permit for its West Elk coal mine.
In 2020 four environmental groups sued Mountain Coal, saying the mine was operating without required Clean Air Act permits and illegally emitting air pollution.
The consent decree, approved by U.S. District Judge Raymond P. Moore, will not expire until Mountain Coal complies with the terms of its operating permit for two years. The agreement also requires the company to control its methane and volatile organic compound pollution using flares.
“Today’s agreement is a critical step forward in holding Arch Coal accountable to protecting clean air and to limiting harmful methane emissions,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “While we ultimately need to transition completely away from coal to protect our climate, we have certainty in the meantime that the West Elk mine will be reducing harmful methane and other toxic gases.”
The West Elk mine, located in Gunnison County east of Paonia in western Colorado, vents massive amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from dozens of wells drilled above the mine. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 86 times more heat-trapping capacity than carbon dioxide.
“With Colorado and the West becoming hotter and drier due to climate change pollution from sources such as the West Elk coal mine, this agreement is a significant step in the right direction, one that will directly benefit local public lands, waters and people,” said Matt Reed, public lands director at High Country Conservation Advocates.
The mine is the single largest industrial source of methane in Colorado and emitted more than 312,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2020. This is equal to the annual emissions from nearly 68,000 vehicles. As methane is vented from the mine, it also releases volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog. Ozone can lead to asthma attacks and increased emergency room visits.
Under today’s agreement, Arch Coal will use flares to burn mine gases, which in turn will reduce methane and VOCs.
“This agreement means tangible benefits for Colorado’s air quality, the public’s health and the climate,” said Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s good that Arch Coal must take commonsense steps to reduce the mine’s pollution. But the bottom line is that we have to transition away from coal entirely to ensure a livable planet for future generations.”
Federal law requires polluters to obtain a permit and comply with pollution-control requirements before releasing these dangerous compounds. Mountain Coal only applied for this permit after conservation groups filed suit, and the permit has yet to be issued.
“Today’s agreement helps protect the air we breathe and limits the climate damage that can be caused by this massive coal mine,” said Nathaniel Shoaff, senior attorney at Sierra Club. “Fossil fuel companies shouldn’t get a free pass to bypass the Clean Air Act, and this agreement assures this will not happen at the West Elk mine.”
Methane venting at the West Elk mine has been a longstanding problem. In November 2019 the conservation groups won a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s approval of the mine’s expansion. A federal judge ruled that the government had illegally ignored options to limit methane venting and toxic emissions.
The conservation groups filed suit in 2020 under the Clean Air Act, which allows citizens to sue to enforce the law where states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fail to do so.
The plaintiffs are WildEarth Guardians, High Country Conservation Advocates, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club. The groups are represented by David A. Nicholas of Newton, Mass., Caitlin Miller of Earthjustice, and Samantha Ruscavage-Barz and Daniel Timmons of WildEarth Guardians.