Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, December 14, 2022


Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663,
Allison Melton, Center for Biological Diversity, (970) 309-2008,
Matt Reed, High Country Conservation Advocates, (303) 505-9917,
Noah Rott, Sierra Club, (406) 214-1990,
Peter Hart, Wilderness Workshop, (303) 475-4915,

Colorado Judge Rules Polis Administration Broke Air Quality Law Over West Elk Coal Mine Permit

GUNNISON, Colo.— A Colorado court has ruled that Gov. Jared Polis’ administration violated state law by failing to act on an air pollution permit for the West Elk coal mine in western Colorado.

In Tuesday’s ruling, District Court Judge J. Steven Patrick said the Polis administration violated state law by failing to approve or deny the mine permit by the legal deadline. The court also ordered the state to release records related to the “uncooperativeness” of Arch Coal and how the state responded.

“This is a critical win for clean air,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Polis administration must follow through and ensure the West Elk mine operates in compliance with air quality laws and protects clean air and people.”

Located in the North Fork Valley near the town of Paonia, the West Elk mine has come under fire in recent years over its air pollution. The coal mine, which is the largest in Colorado, is a massive source of smog-forming volatile organic compound emissions, as well as methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“The failure to comply with — and to enforce — air quality laws is unacceptable to Gunnison County residents and visitors who value clean air, climate change action and healthy public lands,” said Matt Reed, public lands director with Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “The court’s decision makes it clear that the state’s foot-dragging cannot continue.”

In a recent agreement, Mountain Coal, a subsidiary of Arch that operates the West Elk coal mine, committed to better control pollution from the mine and obtain a legally required federal air quality permit to ensure compliance. Because the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division failed to meet the September 2021 deadline to approve the new permit, the mine has been operating without state agency oversight.

In July, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, High Country Conservation Advocates and Wilderness Workshop sued the Polis administration over its illegal delay.

“The court’s swift decision makes it clear that the agency failed to do its job to protect people and wildlife,” said Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is one of the biggest polluters in Colorado, and we’re in a climate emergency. The Polis administration needs to walk its talk and start upholding state and federal air pollution laws instead of ignoring them.”

“Coal mines are bad for our air, our water and our climate,” said Sierra Club Senior Attorney Nathaniel Shoaff. “This decision provides the state of Colorado with a straight-forward mandate: air quality matters, and you must act to protect the public.”

“It is ludicrous that one of the biggest air pollution sources in the state of Colorado has been operating without a permit,” said Peter Hart, attorney with Wilderness Workshop. “The court has made it clear that the state simply cannot ignore its duty to manage emissions that are destroying our climate, contaminating the air we breathe, and shrouding the beauty of the North Fork Valley and Colorado in pollution.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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