May 3, 2023 - A Colorado judge today set a deadline for Gov. Jared Polis’ administration to draft an air quality permit for the West Elk coal mine and ordered a state agency to report progress to ensure the tardy permitting remains on track.
“It's time for Colorado to stop dragging its feet and start protecting people from polluters like Arch Coal's West Elk coal mine,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “This latest ruling is a big win for clean air and another rebuke of the Polis administration's attempts to give the fossil fuel industry a free pass to pollute.”
Today’s order follows District Court Judge J. Steven Patrick’s December 2022 decision that the Polis administration violated state law by failing to approve or deny the mine permit by the legal deadline. The order today said the permit process has been delayed “well beyond the statutory expected deadline” and the judge set regular check-ins throughout the remaining permitting steps.
“It’s great to see the judge holding the Polis administration accountable on this polluting mine and keeping things on track with a draft permit deadline and regular check-ins,” said Allison Henderson, Southern Rockies director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The West Elk coal mine is one of the biggest polluters in Colorado, and we’re in a climate emergency. I’m hopeful this order forces the administration to stop its cavalier violations of legal deadlines intended to protect the air we breathe.”
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.
“We’re pleased the judge is keeping the agency on track to make a final decision on this outstanding Title V permit,” said Matt Reed, public lands director at High Country Conservation Advocates. “The agency’s extensive delay is unacceptable and the deadline and schedules that have been set by the court will help ensure Gunnison country residents, wildlife and visitors have clean air.”
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 2022 WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, High Country Conservation Advocates and Wilderness Workshop sued the Polis administration over its illegal delay.
“Today’s order, once again, sends a message to state regulators that polluters don’t get a free pass,” said Peter Hart of Wilderness Workshop. “The West Elk Mine is one of the largest sources of pollution in the state and it operates on cherished public lands in the North Fork Valley. The mine has been allowed to operate without a permit for far too long, and the state should be working double time to ensure this operation is brought into compliance as soon as possible.”
“State agencies in Colorado have a long history of failing to properly regulate polluting industry,” said Ramesh Bhatt, Colorado Sierra Club's conservation committee chair. “We're happy that the court has ordered an end to this foot dragging and we hope the state regulates in a timely manner the largest industrial methane polluter in the state. The permit issued by the state should take common sense steps to reduce its massive pollution that is not only contributing to climate change but also despoiling the air quality over some of the most pristine and scenic areas in Colorado.”