Coal mines linked with warming

PAONIA – Methane is a dastardly gas to coal miners. It can suffocate them or, if combusted, explode and has killed thousands of miners in Colorado.

At the West Elk mine near Paonia, methane wasn’t a problem until about five years ago, when the coal near the surface was exhausted and stopes were dug farther underground. The new excavations unleashed the methane, requiring ventilation shafts be drilled.

But that makes it a global problem. Methane is a greenhouse gas, far shorter lived in the atmosphere than the more common carbon dioxide, but with 23 times the heat-trapping properties. For that reason, many environmentalists believe that capturing methane from the West Elk and other coal mines is among the most important short-term actions in forestalling global warming.

The West Elk Mine alone emits an estimated 7 million cubic-feet of methane a year, and two other nearby mines emit just as much. Altogether, this represents 1.3 percent of the total greenhouse gas footprint of Colorado.

“It’s a major issue,” says Steve Wolcott, the chairman of Western Slope Environmental Resource Council’s Coal Committee. “It’s also a major opportunity, a pretty easy way to make a big impact on the state’s carbon footprint in one spot – and potentially make money doing it.”

The way money could be made is by tapping the methane, which is a primary constituent of natural gas. The methane from the West Elk mine is enough to heat 39,000 houses or a city about the size of Grand Junction.

“There has to be a way to make the methane marketable, either through electricity that can be pumped back into the grid or as natural gas,” says Wolcott.

Something similar is being done in Utah where methane from the Aberdeen Mine, near Price, has been captured, purified and piped to market. The financing in that case was shared by the coal-mine, gas company and the City of Aspen and Pitkin County, via carbon off-set money.

Towns pushing wildfire evacuations

EAGLE – It’s not shaping up as a big year for wildfires in most mountain valleys of the West. But wildfire is never far from the thoughts of Barry Smith, the director of emergency preparedness for Eagle County.

His projects this year include evacuation planning for Eby Creek, a subdivision of several homes amid a forest of piñon and juniper near.

Planning for the eventuality of wildfires in Colorado is a relatively new thing. Smith, a firefighter since the mid-1970s, says even the 1994 death of 10 firefighters near Glenwood Springs failed to wake people up to the dangers. What changed perceptions was the summer of 2002, says Smith. Among others elsewhere in the West, three major fires occurred in Colorado: Durango, Glenwood Springs, and biggest of all, the Hayman Fire southwest of Denver.

“The whole Eagle River Valley was shrouded in smoke for large parts of that summer, and when people are breathing smoke all the time, they get worried – because they don’t know where the smoke is coming from,” says Smith. “We were getting phone calls all the time.”

After that big summer, Congress passed the Healthy Forests Initiative, which encourages – but does not mandate – wildfire protection planning. Even so, Eagle County and other county and town governments began planning. Many other mountain jurisdictions now have evacuation plans in place as well, among them Grand Lake, at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, and Vail.

One of Smith’s major projects this year is to produce an evacuation plan for Eby Creek Mesa. If a fire does occur, states Smith, residents can only be asked to leave. “I have found nothing in the Colorado statutes that says we can force people to evacuate,” he says.

However, beetle-killed forests have served as a reminder of vulnerabilities that always existed. There is, says Smith, a greater acceptance for the need to thin and remove trees. Beaver Creek, which originally opposed a wildfire protection plan, now brags about the plan in its marketing.

Avalanches claim more snowmobilers

KETCHUM, Idaho – Yet more evidence arrives that all the tools in the world might not save you if caught in an avalanche. Snowmobilers both in Idaho and British Columbia died in recent weeks, and the stories were remarkably similar.

In the Idaho case, a 38-year snowmobiler was high-marking in the mountains north of Sun Valley when avalanche left him buried under as much as 10 feet of snow.

Three of his companions observed the avalanche and were able to pick up the signal from his beacon within minutes. All were equipped with shovels and probe poles. They also had a satellite phone, and one of them was an emergency medical technician.

Still, because of how compacted the snow was, it took them more than 20 minutes to reach the victim, who died of asphyxiation.

In Canada, along the Continental Divide in the Monashee Range, a 24-year-old snowmobiler had reached nearly the apex of a steep-faced, above-timberline slope when he triggered an avalanche. He had been among 10 snowmobilers who had spent several hours high-marking on the slope.

TheEdmonton Journal says that despite avalanche beacons and probes, it took 30 minutes to locate and excavate him from under more than 6 feet of snow.

“Snow is pretty wild stuff. It will pack in around you quite tight. People lose the ability to literally expand their chest to breath,” said Greg Johnson, an avalanche forecaster with the Canadian Avalanche Association.

With this death, 25 people have died in avalanches in Canada for the season, 19 of them snowmobilers. The total is the highest since 2003, when 29 were killed.

Crested Butte bar draws complaints

CRESTED BUTTE – Call it a squabble verging on a feud. Neighbors of The Pub, a bar in Crested Butte, say there’s just too much racket. “I’m a partier, but I can’t sleep through this,” said Priscila Banks, who lives nearby. “And I can sleep through anything,” she added.

Owners of The Pub insist they have mostly complied with the rules, which mandate noise be kept to 60 decibels or less. That, they say, is in line with the noise threshold specified in other resort towns. A creek that tumbles through the town, immediately behind the bar, is louder, says bar co-owner Chris Werderitch.

Peter Giannini, described by theCrested Butte News as a community gadfly, said viability of the core business district is at issue. Anybody living there “should expect to be subjected to more noise. There are tradeoffs living in that area, and increased noise is one of them. To make it harder for tourists to have fun is a mistake, especially in this economy.”

Of course, there was a counter-argument to that: “Noise isn’t the only way to have fun,” said another neighbor, Cricket Farrington. “In fact, I’ll bet if you lowered the decibels, people inside wouldn’t even notice it.”

The Town Council, reports theCrested Butte News, doesn’t want to change any laws, but is leaning on the operators of The Pub to work out a solution with neighbors. “Now, go have a group hug out in the hallway,” said Alan Bernholtz, the mayor.

A-Basin heading for the high end

DILLON – Arapahoe Basin was among Colorado’s first ski areas, opening in 1946, and for close to 60 years, very little has changed.

In recent years, however, the ski area has begun looking a lot more like your typical destination ski area. There is snowmaking, a new expansion area called Montezuma Bowl, and a new mid-mountain restaurant, Black Mountain Lodge.

This is quite a change from the place whose mid-mountain dining consisted of hamburgers and hot dogs.

The Summit Daily News reports that the lodge recently hosted its first full-moon feast, the sort in which guests exchanged their coats at the door for shots of cinnamon amaretto.

The bison leg served for dinner was a hit all around, reports Kimberly Nicoletti, the reporter. “Duuude – it’s really good,” said a snowboarder on one side. “Excellent” and “delicious” raved an older couple.

City gets a grip on water footprint

JACKSON, Wyo. – When people think of electrical use, they commonly think of lights, maybe their computers, and perhaps their refrigerator. In fact, water – moving it, purifying it, and then treating the sewage – is one of the largest sources of electrical use in any community.

In California, according to one study several years ago, water is involved in 19.6 percent of all electrical use. That includes the giant pumping necessary to get water from the Sacramento area to Southern California.

But even in mountain valleys, water is a big part of electrical use. When the city of Jackson and Teton County two years ago studied electrical use, water – mostly from the sewage treatment plant – was responsible for 20 percent of use.

– Allen Best