A coal mine in La Plata County has been approved for expansion, a move that is expected to extend the life of the mine for at least another 20 years.
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 this week announced the request has been granted.
“Jobs in the coal industry matter,” Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond said in a prepared statement. “The Department of the Interior supports working landscapes across the West, and the coal reserves in this proposal will play a major role in infrastructure projects beneficial for all Americans.”
Gina Lotito, vice president of energy and sustainability for GCC Energy, said in an email to The Durango Herald that the BLM’s decision will keep 100 jobs in the county.
“GCC Energy is pleased that we will continue to be part of the La Plata County community for years to come,” Lotito said. “We take our responsibility to the county and the land seriously and will continue to be good partners.”
Most of the coal extracted at King II goes to GCC Energy’s parent company – Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, a multimillion dollar international cement manufacturer based in Chihuahua, Mexico – for use in cement production.
Since the company took over the King II mine, it has produced an average of about 700,000 tons of coal per year. But increasingly, production has waned as the industry takes a downturn. This year, GCC Energy is on track to extract about 624,000 tons, according to state records.
GCC Energy officials have said the expansion would have minimal impact on surface operations.
“Nothing changes in the way we operate,” King II mine manager Chris Dorenkamp wrote in a letter to nearby property owners.
There was little public opposition to the proposed expansion, save for a handful of residents who brought up issues with climate change, truck traffic associated with hauling coal and potential impacts to water quality.
GCC Energy will have to build a shallow tunnel, called a low-cover crossing, to access its new reserves of coal, which will require approval from various federal and local agencies, including La Plata County commissioners.
Commissioners on Tuesday decided to put off a vote until Nov. 5 to wait for the BLM’s decision, which came out Wednesday.
At the meeting, commissioners expressed concern about the amount of truck traffic on the one access road to the mine, County Road 120.
If approved, traffic for construction of the tunnel, as well as a separate repaving project of County Road 120 headed by GCC, will be on top of the regular daily traffic for the mine, about 100 trucks.
Paula Mathias, who lives along County Road 120, said she was speaking Tuesday on behalf of eight other neighbors with concerns about the amount of traffic slated for the county road.
“If this was on County Road 250 (East Animas Road, in the Animas Valley), you’d have (hundreds) of residents here concerned,” she said. “However, it’s along a sleepy little county road … and we feel GCC are much more important than a few concerned citizens.”
GCC Energy representatives said they will work with the county’s Public Works Department to reduce traffic impacts.