Chase Woodruff

(Daily Montanan) Two conservation groups have formally petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in state air-quality regulators’ decision to issue an operating permit to Colorado’s largest remaining coal mine.

Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division issued the permit to the West Elk Mine in Gunnison County in December, more than six months after a federal judge’s ruling that the agency had illegally delayed its decision on whether to approve or deny the permit, which a subsidiary of mine owner Arch Coal first applied for in 2020.

But two of the groups involved in that litigation, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, call the permit issued by the APCD a “free pass” that doesn’t do enough to limit emissions of volatile organic compounds, a class of hazardous air pollutants, or methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

In a petition filed with the EPA this week, the environmental groups argued that the permit “fails to assure compliance” with state and federal air-quality rules, and asked the agency to formally object to its approval. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA can use such objections to require revisions to state-issued permits — an action it took last year when it ordered the APCD to strengthen compliance and monitoring requirements in its operating permit for the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City.

The West Elk Mine, located northeast of Paonia, produced nearly 4.4 million tons of coal in 2022, and is one of only a handful of coal mines that remain in operation in Colorado as coal-fired electricity generation wanes. The underground mine’s extensive ventilation system, necessary to vent methane and other toxic gases so that coal can be extracted safely, extends for more than 20 square miles of surface area, including parts of the Gunnison National Forest.

These surface vents have “the potential to emit hundreds of tons of harmful air pollutants,” including VOCs, particulate matter and methane, the environmental groups wrote in their petition. But the state’s permit fails to set sufficient monitoring requirements, the groups allege, and “fails to set forth any specific methodology for sampling and testing VOC emissions” from the vents.

“While the permit ostensibly establishes a limit on VOC emissions, it’s a huge limit that basically guarantees Arch will be able to flood the air with as much toxic pollution as it wants,” Jeremy Nichols, a senior advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email. “This permit stands as a serious affront to clean air in western Colorado.”

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has 60 days to review and respond to the groups’ petition to block the permit.