Impassioned community members and mine affiliates gave diverse testimony to La Plata County planning commissioners over a county land-use permit application for an underground coal mine in Hesperus.
People crowded the county board room Wednesday as the La Plata County Planning Commission reviewed a licensing application for the King II coal mine.
Late Wednesday night, the commissioners announced they were postponing a decision on the permit application until 7:30 p.m. Thursday. At that time, the mine owner, Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, can make its rebuttal, and then commissioners will make their decision.
The county’s debate over the mine comes as the state is considering revising its permit to include increased testing at the mine’s disposal site, and that decision should be complete by month’s end.
Jerry Weiss said, as a builder, he’s familiar with county permitting processes. “We jump through the hoops and try to follow county rules,” he said. “I notice GCC has delayed, refused or ignored various requirements for this land-use application. Something has to be done – a bond for road improvements, anything to put some weight behind (the county’s) approvals, disapprovals and conditions.”
Other meeting attendees argued that miners’ jobs are at stake, and claimed the county Planning Department has a bias against the mine.
“The county needs to ensure that personal conflicts of interest are mitigated,” David Peters said. “They said they’re going out of their way to be accommodating, but discussions have soured from the tone of the document. They’re excessive in their demands.”
King II is owned by Mexico cement producer Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua. The mine does not supply the utility industry; King II’s clients include cement companies as well as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
When King II opened in 2007, the county declared the mine exempt from the permitting process because the mine is located on federal Bureau of Land Management lands.
When GCC Energy requested to expand, the county then asked for compliance with land-use codes. County and mine officials have wrestled with the application for years.
Over the course of nearly 10 years, production has quadrupled to about 1 million tons of bituminous coal produced annually. Congruently, company truck traffic along County Road 120 – the gateway to the mine – has significantly swollen, which is the crux of the dispute.
Last month, documentation from county planning staff members surfaced, recommending the application’s denial because King II did not agree to specific road improvements, but mine officials told the planning board on Wednesday they would agree to some concessions.
The county credited GCC for some remedial action, like dust mitigation, but the company has not paved the road. Planning staff suggested a four-phase plan for paving the road, and a 120-truck daily cap.
“We have about 140 jobs at the mine, 155 truck drivers and 120 supporting jobs with a $93,000 average salary. A one-truck per day reduction equals three job losses,” GCC affiliate Gina Nance protested. “We agree to $10 million in road improvements, a 12-cent per ton maintenance fee and will cap the truck numbers in the long term.”
Expansion plans have also been interrupted by the federal coal moratorium announced in January, from which GCC Energy is seeking exemption. Mine officials said the later phases of road improvements should be contingent upon the Interior Department’s decision, but county officials said that has no weight in the permitting conversation.
“The county recognizes GCC has uncertainty with BLM actions, but that shouldn’t be absorbed by the county or public,” county planner Dan Murray said.
County planners and public attendees reiterated they do not favor the mine’s closure, only needed road improvements.