Colorado judge rules Polis administration broke air quality law over permitting West Elk coal mine

GUNNISONCol.— A Colorado court has ruled that Gov. Jared Polis’ administration broke state law by failing to implement an air pollution permit at the West Elk coal mine in western Colorado.

In Tuesday’s decision, District Court Judge J. Steven Patrick said the Polis government violated state law by failing to approve or deny the mine permit within the statutory time limit. The court also ordered the state to release records of Arch Coal’s “non-cooperation” and the state’s response.

“This is a crucial win for clean air,” said Jeremy Nichols, program director for climate and energy at WildEarth Guardians. “The Polis administration must assert itself and ensure that the West Elk mine is operated in accordance with air quality laws and protects clean air and people.”

Located in the North Fork Valley near the town of Paonia, the West Elk mine has come under fire in recent years for its air pollution. The coal mine, Colorado’s largest, is a massive source of smog-forming emissions of volatile organic compounds as well as methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“Failure to comply — and enforce — air quality laws is unacceptable to Gunnison County residents and visitors who value clean air, climate change action and healthy public lands,” said Matt Reed, director of public lands at High Country in Gunnison County conservation advocates. “The court’s decision makes it clear that the state’s trailing behind cannot continue.”

Mountain Coal, an Arch subsidiary that operates the West Elk coal mine, recently committed in an agreement to better control pollution from the mine and receive a statutory federal air quality permit to ensure compliance. Because the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment did not meet the September 2021 deadline to approve the new permit, the mine has been operating without government oversight.

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In July, the WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, High Country Conservation Advocates and Wilderness Workshop sued the Polis government for its unlawful delay.

“The court’s quick decision makes it clear that the agency has failed in its duty to protect people and wildlife,” said Allison Melton, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is one of the biggest polluters in Colorado and we are in a climate emergency. The Polis government needs to walk the talk and start complying with state and federal air pollution laws, not ignoring them.”

“Coal mines are bad for our air, our water and our climate,” said Nathaniel Shoaff, senior attorney for the Sierra Club. “This decision gives the state of Colorado a clear mandate: air quality matters, and you must act to protect the public.”

“It is ridiculous that one of the largest sources of air pollution in the state of Colorado was operated without a permit,” said Peter Hart, attorney for Wilderness Workshop. “The court made it clear that the state simply cannot ignore its duty to control emissions that are destroying our climate, polluting the air we breathe and blanketing the beauty of the North Fork Valley and Colorado in pollution.”

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