DENVER— Conservation groups sued Arch Coal today over illegal pollution at the company’s West Elk coal mine in western Colorado. The mine is the single-largest industrial source of methane pollution in the state.
Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, asserts that Arch Coal is violating the federal Clean Air Act by failing to limit emissions of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The groups also say Arch Coal has not obtained the basic Clean Air Act permits required of all major sources of air pollutants.
“Clean air is fundamental for healthy communities and healthy public lands in Colorado. Arch Coal has disregarded this for years, even while expanding mining operations that release more and more air pollutants into the atmosphere,” said Matt Reed, public lands director at High Country Conservation Advocates, based in Gunnison County. “Our suit seeks to right this wrong, and to ensure that the health of people and the environment in western Colorado is not ignored in the quest for fossil fuel development.”
The suit was filed by WildEarth Guardians, High Country Conservation Advocates, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club under the “citizen suit provision” of the Clean Air Act. Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, is the second-largest producer of power-plant coal in the United States.
“This is about protecting clean air and health from dirty coal,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians. “For too long Arch has illegally polluted. This has to stop.”
Located near the North Fork of the Gunnison River, the West Elk mine vents massive amounts of methane directly into the atmosphere. As methane gas is vented, it also releases a mix of other VOCs that threaten air quality in the Rocky Mountains.
“It’s deplorable that Arch Coal has failed to invest in the pollution control technology that the law requires,” said Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “All of us, people and wildlife alike, deserve clean air. Arch Coal has been ignoring the law for years, and Colorado has been paying the price. That needs to end.”
The groups argue that because the West Elk mine can emit more than 250 tons of volatile organic compounds per year, Arch Coal is required to obtain a permit that would impose “best available” emission controls to curb both VOC and methane releases. This permit — known as a “Prevention of Significant Deterioration of air quality permit” —sets emission limits based on the maximum degree of control that can be achieved.
“By failing to obtain the necessary permits, yet still building and operating the mine, Arch is flouting the Clean Air Act in the most fundamental way,” said Neil Levine, an attorney with Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Project who is representing the groups. “No permit, no compliance.”
The groups also claim that Arch Coal has not obtained the standard operating permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act, which would contain a comprehensive set of emission limits, monitoring and public reporting requirements. Courts call a Title V permit the “bible for Clean Air Act compliance.”
“It is critical for us to limit the emissions and pollutants we release into the environment, as they pose significant public health and environmental threats,” said Emily Gedeon, acting director of the Sierra Club’s Colorado Chapter. “Arch's desire to put corporate profits ahead of public health, by disregarding the Clean Air Act, is the wrong move for Coloradans."
Today’s lawsuit calls on the court to order Arch Coal and its subsidiary Mountain Coal Company to stop illegally polluting and start operating only in compliance with emission limits in permits that it needs to obtain under the Clean Air Act. The suit also asks for a monetary penalty to be imposed, which can be up to $101,439 per day, and is intended to deter future additional violations by the companies.
Methane venting at the West Elk mine has been a longstanding problem. Although West Elk has considered flaring a nominal amount of methane spewing from the mine, flaring has not begun despite ongoing emissions. Because that pollution-reduction measure would not be mandatory even if instituted, it could stop at any time and pollution could resume at previous levels.
Last year 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 that would limit methane venting and toxic emissions through flaring technology.
In 2018 the West Elk mine released the equivalent of nearly 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to the annual emissions from more than 64,000 cars.
The groups are represented by Neil Levine, an attorney with Public Justice who is based in Denver, and David A. Nicholas, of Newton, Mass.