Judge rules Polis administration illegally delaying decision on coal mine permit
The Gunnison National Forest in Colorado. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
A Colorado judge this week ruled that Gov. Jared Polis’ administration has violated state law by delaying a decision on a Western Slope coal mine that has been operating without a federally required clean-air permit.
Environmental groups sued the Air Pollution Control Division, a branch of Colorado’s health department, in August, alleging that it had illegally failed to approve or deny a permit application for the West Elk coal mine in Somerset by a September 2021 deadline. The West Elk mine, opened in 1982 and operated by St. Louis-based Arch Resources, is one of Colorado’s largest producers of coal — and one of its largest emitters of hazardous air pollutants.
In a partial summary judgment issued Tuesday, Judge Steven Patrick of the Gunnison County District Court wrote that the APCD violated state air quality laws in missing a statutory 18-month deadline to make a final decision on the West Elk mine’s Title V permit, a “major source” permit required for large polluters under the federal Clean Air Act.
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“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,” Matt Reed, public lands director for the Gunnison County-based group High Country Conservation Advocates, said in a statement. “The court’s decision makes it clear that the state’s foot-dragging cannot continue.”
The APCD says that delays in the permitting process are due to Arch Resources’ “uncooperativeness” and that it won’t be able to release a draft permit before June 2023 at the earliest, according to court filings.
The court’s swift decision makes it clear that the agency failed to do its job to protect people and wildlife.
– Allison Melton, of Center for Biological Diversity
A series of delays, disputes and withdrawals has meant that the West Elk mine has operated without the required Title V permit for more than a decade, environmental advocates argued in a 2020 lawsuit against the company. Much of environmentalists’ scrutiny focuses on the mine’s ventilation system, which emits large volumes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as volatile organic compounds, which contribute to the formation of smog.
The lawsuit was settled earlier this year, with a federal court issuing a consent decree that requires the mine to better control emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds using flares.
In their suit against the APCD, the plaintiffs are seeking agency records related to the permitting process as part of its efforts to ask the court to set a new deadline. Patrick ordered the parties to confer by Jan. 20 on the production of documents “concerning when final action can reasonably be ordered by the Court.”
“The court’s swift decision makes it clear that the agency failed to do its job to protect people and wildlife,” Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement on the ruling. “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.”
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