Truck traffic, water quality and climate change were the predominant concerns for the handful of residents who attended a meeting this week about the possible expansion of GCC Energy’s King II coal mine in Hesperus.
Preparing for its coal reserves to run out, GCC Energy, which has operated the King II mine near Hesperus since 2007, asked the Bureau of Land Management in 2018 for a lease to expand the mine by 2,462 acres, opening access to an estimated 12 million tons of coal.
The BLM earlier this summer released an environmental analysis that looked at the supposed impacts of approving the expansion, ultimately recommending GCC Energy be allowed to explore new reserves of coal that are expected to extend the life of the mine by at least 22 years.
Not many residents showed up Thursday to the open house at the Breen Community Center, but the few who did were not in favor of the expansion.
“The idea of expanding is reprehensible,” said Kara Armano, who lives in Hesperus. “It’s 2019. Coal is not an efficient use of our natural resources, and it devastates air quality and water quality.”
Adele Riffe, who lives on Colorado Highway 140, one of the routes trucks use to transport coal, said GCC Energy’s truck drivers do not respect the speed limit.
“They come right up to the stop sign and slam on their brakes,” she said. “If we had a chance to vote on this (the expansion), I’d vote no.”
Her husband, Philip Riffe, said his main issue is the burning of coal’s contribution to climate change.
“I think we should be curtailing the use of coal,” he said. “My big deal is climate change.”
Michelle Hover, a Durango native who has lived on Highway 140 for more than a decade, said she’s concerned about water quality in the area as a result of the mine’s operation. She too took issue with the truck traffic in the area, which is around 100 trucks a day, adding that they’re causing wear and tear on the road.
Kirby MacLaurin said he’s opposed to the extraction of coal. He doesn’t live near Hesperus, he said, but he does “live in this atmosphere.”
“Coal is just not economical anymore,” he said. “Renewables are much cheaper.”
Jordan McCourt, a project coordinator for GCC Energy, came out to voice his support for the expansion.
“Obviously, to support jobs,” he said of why he supports expansion. “I like my job.”
Dan Huntington, a fourth-generation rancher who lives adjacent to the King II mine, said he also supports extending the life of GCC Energy’s operation. Huntington sells water, about 60 acre-feet a year, to GCC Energy.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he said of the operation. “They (GCC Energy) do a heck of a lot for the county with roads, taxes, jobs. And they’ve been a good neighbor.”
Despite the voicing of public opinion, the BLM seeks what it calls “substantive comments,” which speak directly to suggestions or parts of the proposed project, agency officials said.
BLM project manager James Blair said King II’s impact on water quality is minimal. The mine is above the water table and has little interaction with groundwater, he said.
A GCC representative said most of the water purchased from Huntington is used for dust control and does not leave the site.
GCC Energy’s parent company is Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, a multimillion dollar international cement manufacturer based in Chihuahua, Mexico. Since the company took over the King II mine, it has averaged about 700,000 tons of coal per year, which is used mainly for cement production. But increasingly, production has waned as the industry takes a downturn.
If approved, the expansion would have minimal impact on surface operations, federal records show. In a letter to nearby property owners earlier this year, King II mine manager Chris Dorenkamp said, “nothing changes in the way we operate” with the future development.
Over the years, neighbors along GCC’s main trafficking route on County Road 120 have complained about noise, dust and the number of trucks that go by daily. The company in response has limited daily trips, stopped running on Sundays and paved part of the road.
The public can comment through the BLM’s website at https://bit.ly/2XCvFcG until Aug. 5. A BLM official said the agency had received relatively little public comment as of Thursday.
A final decision about the expansion is expected to be announced in March 2020.