Hay Gulch Coal – one of the only suppliers of coal for home-heating purposes in the Four Corners – has been forced to all but close this fall because of a lack of available coal to sell.
“I’m pretty saddened I can’t supply the coal they require,” said owner Mike Crawford. “I hate to let people down that rely on me.”
For years, people who use coal to heat their homes have traveled to rural western La Plata County to buy coal from the King I and now King II coal mines on County Road 120, about 15 miles west of Durango.
About 11 years ago, as the mine planned an expansion, the operator – GCC Energy – contracted with Crawford to sell the coal at a site a few miles down the road to eliminate conflicts with mine operations.
Today, the business serves about 5,000 customers from all over the Four Corners.
Most people come from La Plata County and the Navajo Nation, but some customers travel from as far as Naturita, Gunnison and even Colorado Springs because of the lack of other options in the region.
‘Supply is very low right now’This summer, however, GCC Energy installed a new piece of equipment that processes a higher efficiency, “cleaner” coal, said Chris Dorenkamp, mine manager. Most of the coal the mine produces goes to its parent company for cement production.
While the mine is producing at a rate 10 percent higher than last year, the new piece of equipment operates at a set rate and doesn’t allow for high surges of the “lump coal” preferred by people who heat their homes, he said.
“It spins a certain tonnage per hour and doesn’t allow us to do the high demand for lump heating coal,” Dorenkamp said.
The lump coal that is available has gone to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, as well as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in Chama, New Mexico, which prefer to fuel their steam locomotives with the same kind of coal people use in their homes.
As a result, deliveries to Hay Gulch Coal have all but ceased. On the rare occasions this fall when the company has received a coal shipment, Crawford said it hasn’t lasted long.
A delivery last weekend of about 90 tons of coal was sold in three hours, he said. And another shipment of about 40 tons was gone in an hour.
“It’s just a simple factor of supply and demand,” Crawford said. “And the supply is very low right now.”
Hay Gulch Coal closes operations over the summer and usually reopens around the first week of September. But, Crawford said the customers don’t start coming in earnest until the weather turns cold.
Dorenkamp said the mine informed its customers this summer that production was about to change and to plan accordingly.
“All our customers knew this was coming,” he said.
According to state records, GCC Energy has churned out an average of about 700,000 tons of coal a year since it took over the mine, though in recent years, the company has seen a marked decline in production.
In 2017, GCC Energy produced just 543,350 tons. This year, the company is on track to produce about 634,940 tons of coal.
Railroads to reduce demandThere appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel for customers left in the cold with the shortage of available coal.
The railroad in Chama recently shut down for the season, and the D&SNG will start its less frequent schedule of winter rides in the next few weeks, which for Hay Gulch Coal means there’ll be more coal to go around.
Al Harper, owner of the D&SNG, said the train receives about four deliveries of coal a week over the summer peak season. In the winter, however, shipments drop to about one a week, he said.
Harper did not have exact numbers when contacted this week for how much coal the train uses in a year.
“We use a fraction of coal in winter that we do in summer,” he said. “So there should be a lot of extra coal.”
Indeed, GCC Energy’s Dorenkamp said in an email: “We will have additional lump coal available for Hay Gulch Coal to purchase at that time.”
But Crawford fears it won’t be enough.
“I’m hoping once the train starts shutting down, it will at least free more up for public sales,” he said. “I really don’t think they’re going to produce enough to keep up with supply and demand, but it will help.”
Another issue: There aren’t many other options where people can get coal in the region.
“I wish that I could direct them to some place they could get coal,” Crawford said. “I don’t know of any.”
About half of Hay Gulch Coal’s customers come from the Navajo Nation, where a vast majority of households use coal in indoor stoves to keep warm.
Duane “Chili” Yazzie, Shiprock chapter president of the Navajo Nation, said many people on the reservation make the long trek to Hay Gulch Coal because it’s their only source of heat.
Recently, however, vendors have been selling burnable coal from the Peabody coal mine in Arizona, alleviating the reliance on Hay Gulch Coal.
“There’s a lot of coal that comes in from Peabody,” Yazzie said. “So people here aren’t that impacted.”
In the meantime, for the people who do rely on Hay Gulch Coal, Crawford asked that his customers call before traveling to the business. He said he updates the company’s voice mail when he receives a delivery and plans a sale.
“I’m a prideful man and run prideful business,” Crawford said. “I’ve always been there and always been reliable. You have to be when people rely on you. So it saddens me greatly that it’s come down to where I’m not reliable.”