After seven years of decline, coal production in Colorado increased 10.4 percent in 2011 to nearly 28 million tons as companies tapped into new markets abroad.
The state Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety says employment at Colorado’s 10 mines also rose 12 percent to 2,363 in the first nine months of 2011. And, there are plans for four new mines — led by Peabody Energy’s $200 million proposal for a new operation in Routt County — and eight expansions of existing mines.
The jump in production is the result of an improving economy, some mines going back into production after resolving technical problems and improving prospects for international exports.
“After some tough years, this is good news,” said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association.
But not everyone is so happy, and the increase in coal production has led to several challenges from environmental groups.
“Does it make sense to use our public lands so China and Europe can burn coal?” asked Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the environmental law group Earthjustice.
The Post reports that the approval of a 1,700-acre expansion of West Elk Mine in Gunnison County, operated by St. Louis-based Arch Coal, was delayed last week after Earthjustice filed an appeal. A U.S. Forest Service said the plan didn’t adequately protect endangered species or address geological hazards.
Meanwhile, Florida-based Oxbow Carbon’s Oak Mesa Mine project in Delta County has sparked criticism because it would touch the Currant Creek Roadless Area, and the Red Cliff Mine expansion would move into the proposed Hunter Canyon Wilderness Area.
“Our best habitat, headwaters streams and most valued public lands are inappropriate for coal mining,” said Mike Chiropolos, chief public lands counsel at Western Resource Advocates, an environmental policy group.
State and federal environmental officials also are concerned because mines vent large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane.
But industry executives argue that mining operations are highly regulated and are major employers and taxpayers in parts of western Colorado.
“Colorado coal is low in sulfur and high in heat value, making a very good product,” Sanderson said.