Six months after the Interior secretary declared a pause on new coal production leases across the United States, the King II coal mine in Hesperus received the exemption from the moratorium it was looking for as well as a green light for exploratory drilling.
The Bureau of Land Management’s exemption, granted last month, allows the mine to pursue a lease modification to continue production while the federal government conducts a three-year review of the coal program and its impacts.
Because King II reserves are dwindling, the mine qualified for an exemption.
“In just under three years, mining would extend far enough that it would cut off access to future reserves if the exemption was not granted,” GCC Energy Vice President Trent Peterson wrote in an email. GCC Energy is a cement producer based in Mexico that owns the mine. Coal produced at King II primarily fuels cement plants and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
An additional piece of good news for GCC: The BLM authorized the company to drill up to 23 exploration holes on 5.3 acres in Hesperus accessible by county roads and adjacent to the existing mine on County Road 120. Expected to begin by the end of August, the project should last two months, after which any holes will be plugged and disturbed land restored.
As outlined in the BLM’s environmental assessment, drilling at each location will take about one to 1½ days. No ponderosa pine or fir trees are to be removed, and hazardous and nonhazardous waste materials would be disposed of in accordance with federal law.
Peterson said County Road 120 residents won’t see traffic delays or road impacts from the exploratory operations, though both have been the topic of complaints in recent years as the mine has increased production.
GCC is executing a five-year road-improvement plan as a condition for receiving the commercial land-use permit La Plata County approved in June.
The company applied for the exploration license in June 2014. It does not authorize GCC to mine coal within the exploration boundaries, which would require additional environmental reviews, public input and a separate permitting process with the BLM and other agencies, including the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Meanwhile, the environmental group WildEarth Guardians continues its battle with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement over whether King II is producing more coal than authorized.
WildEarth Guardians filed the complaint in May, claiming GCC is limited to producing no more than 610,000 tons of coal annually under the agency’s own regulations.
King II produces just less than 1 million tons of bituminous coal each year.
The complaint was denied, but WildEarth Guardians is challenging with a request for informal appeal.
A response from Reclamation and Enforcement is due in mid-August.