King Coal II is a slick operation. The Hesperus coal mine seven miles west on County Road 120 employs rigorous training around exacting safety standards and high-grade technology in its pursuit of extracting the coveted coal that lies underground.
A massive blade-spike drum churns coal out of the seam and onto a cart that ferries the quarry to a conveyer belt that transports it to the surface. A crew then comes along to bolt the coal seam ceiling with 4-foot-long steel rods, reinforced with a tube of epoxy each. On the surface, the coal is sorted, loaded and sent down the road to market. Every employee and visitor wears a locator beacon and carries an oxygen supply in case of emergency. This is not your grandfather’s coal mine.
But King Coal II, owned by Grupos Cementos de Chihuahua, is nevertheless a coal mine, which is by nature a high-impact industrial activity. The miners remove just shy of 1 million tons of coal annually, destined for niche markets: the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad as well as the Cumbres & Toltec train use the fuel, as does a home-heating clientele; the vast majority, though, is used in cement manufacturing. The King Coal II harvest is particularly high quality: low in sulfur, ash, chlorine and mercury, the coal is top notch as far as these things go.
In order for it to get to its markets from the Hesperus mine, the coal must travel – about 30 tons at a time by big-rig trucks that travel through Hay Gulch – the County Road 120 neighborhood in Hesperus that is as bucolic a setting as the name suggests. The road is gravel, the neighborhood is large-lot agriculture, sparsely and peacefully populated – except for the trucks rumbling by every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, leaving dust clouds and noise pollution that only just subside before the next truck contributes its cacophony. Health concerns – including respiratory conditions – have arisen, and quality of life has diminished.
This scenario has endured since 2007, when King Coal II doubled its production at the site and, after being asked to regulate the activity, La Plata County declined, saying it had no authority to do so. That left neighbors with little leverage and plenty of reason to be irked. Not having gone beyond what is expected does not make GCC a bad actor. The company could have offered to pave the road even without being forced by the county to do so, but it is not difficult to understand why it chose not to, bottom lines being what they are. Plus, with a complex regulatory environment already governing the surface and subterranean mining activity, one less framework to navigate is surely welcome to a business. Ultimately, the failure was the county’s, and the residents of Hay Gulch suffered for it.
All is not lost, though. First, in 2010, the county reversed its decision not to regulate the mine under its land-use code, but has yet to issue a land-use permit, under which it can compel GCC to mitigate some of its neighborhood impacts. That permit application is now in the county’s hands and, once issued, can at long last provide some relief to the neighbors. Getting there was not easy, and reflects the steadfast dedication of a neighborhood group looking for solutions, not conflict, in what is inherently a clashing of uses.
The Hay Gulch Citizen Advisory Panel set about this spring to make recommendations to the county on how to alleviate its concerns in the land-use permitting process. The group was clear from the start that it had no ambitions beyond reclaiming some of the peace the rural neighborhood had once known. It was not interested in shutting down the mine or eliminating the 150 jobs it brings to the region. Rather, the panel gathered information about water use and concerns, as well as health, noise and traffic impacts and then asked the county to include some teeth in the forthcoming land-use permit that will protect health and quality of life in Hay Gulch. The group’s request to the county was more than reasonable; its position wholly sympathetic. And GCC has been as well. The company intends to pave the gravel portion of County Road 120, has imposed and enforces strict speed limits on its drivers, and stopped all Sunday truck traffic beginning in March – though the lost Sunday trips are made up for Monday through Saturday. Nevertheless, the paved roads and slower trucks will help, and the conversation that produced the agreements is one worth heeding. These are not perfect solutions – not because of any villainy but rather owed to the inherent conflicting values in question – and the neighbors bear the brunt of the daily compromising, as is always the case with the use with less impact.
Imagining another outcome, though, is difficult. GCC has a right to operate its business and is permitted to do so via the appropriate regulatory entities. It is now seeking a lease modification to expand underground operations by more than 900 acres, and as part of the process is undergoing an environmental assessment by the Bureau of Land Management. That provides neighbors another venue to raise concerns about impacts and seek mitigations for them. GCC is doing its work with integrity, as is the Hay Gulch neighborhood. Both are committed to good outcomes, however differing each vision of that is. Going forward, the county and the BLM can use their roles as regulators to strike the appropriate balance between these neighbors. It will not necessarily be easy, but the players have established a willingness to compromise and work toward solutions. That is a solid foundation for progress.
Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.