By Sam Bower
Plans to expand coal operations at Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine in Somerset recently were stalled by a federal judge after environmental groups sued the government for allowing increased extraction.
And in the mine’s conference room, West Elk environmental engineer Kathy Welt lamented during a recent interview the lawsuit and the potential impacts on miners, their families and the broader economy in western Colorado.
Across the road, caretakers of the former Oxbow mine now flared methane gas. The Aspen ski company has invested millions in this effort to flare methane, said Auden Schendler, the vice president of sustainability. Mine operators vented the gas and burned it at large scales to generate electricity.
Schendler said it was economical for the mine, and stopped methane from making it to the atmosphere — reducing the greenhouse warming effect which is increased when more methane goes into the atmosphere.
Aspen officials have proposed a similar project for the West Elk Mine, but officials have declined. Skico has offered the same partnership with West Elk mine, but they declined.
“You’re going to tell me that there is a room full of explosive gas and you’re going to put a pipe to the top and light it on fire?” Welt asked, raising safety concerns because unlike the Oxbow mine the West Elk remains active and burning off emissions entails risk.
“We’re not going to do it. There are sons down there,” she said.
It is dangerous, she said. The West Elk engineers say they are proud of the ventilation system in place to keep the miners safe.
Methane is sequestered into the closed sections of the mine. Instead of venting to keep methane concentration below 5% (the dangerous range is 5-15%), West Elk is keeping methane above 20% so it is in an inert state.
“We have seen a 90% reduction of methane production since 2011 just by managing gas,” she said.
Not venting methane is against federal law though, and to expand the mine, vents would have to be built into a Roadless area.
Environmental groups including the Sierra Club were quickly opposed to this, as the area was approaching the Gunnison National Forest.
Welt also said she believes that there are no economic benefits to flaring methane.
West Elk is a relatively small mine. They used to export 7 million tons of coal per year, but currently they export 4 million tons per year, which is magnitudes less than the larger neighboring mines exported when they were running. Building infrastructure would be too expensive in the short term and put the mine out of business, said Welt.
“The only way to not ventilate is to not mine,” she said.
Not mining would be the ideal outcome for the climate because it would result in less carbon and methane production and slow the rapid warming up upwards of 1.5˚C to 4˚C predicted by different world organizations. It would not be the ideal outcome for the last 365 employees of the West Elk mine, said Welt.
Welt has two sons in the coal mining industry. This is not uncommon in the valley.
“We’ve got third and fourth generation miners here,” she said.
John Polous, a 61 year old mine engineer has spent many years in the mine. He is going to retire soon, but said he is not sure what the younger miners will do once the mine closes. Polous also has a daughter in the mining industry, she works for reclamation.
Coal miners make $90,000 on average. It is a huge economical driver for the valley, said Welt. In the back of the conference room, “West Elk is a cornerstone of the local economy,” is written on a powerpoint screen.
A lot of these employees are not going to want to transition into renewable energy. The starting wages are just not as high as mining in something like solar installation, said Pete Mueller, head of campus and hands on training at Solar Energy International.
“We’ve definitely retrained coal miners, but the dangers are not equivalent,” he said, “The pay scale is just really not the same.”