Last year, coal trucks hauled 821,509 tons of coal from the King II Coal Mine near Hesperus along County?Road 120. Aproximately 93 trucks made the trek each day./Photo by Jennaye Derge

On the road again

County commissioners to vote on permit for local coal mine

by Tracy Chamberlin

On a county road just west of Durango, it doesn’t take long for the speed limit to drop or the pavement to give way to dirt and dust. It would seem to be the slow road in life.

Then come the trucks. 

Just the facts

What: La Plata County Commissioners hearing on the GCC Energy land-use permit application
When: 8:30 a.m. Tues., May 31; public testimony at 1 and 6 p.m.
Where: La Plata County offices, 1101 E. 2nd Ave. 
More info.: 382-6200 or

The tarped rigs haul out load after load of coal from the King II Coal Mine. For more than a decade, GCC Energy, a regional manufacturer of cement, concrete and coal, has operated the mine near Hesperus, extracting the combustible carbon from an underground seam resting about 300 feet below the surface. 

Trucks transport the coal around the clock, six days a week, carrying about 28 tons in each load along the partially-paved County Road 120.

Coal trucks running along CR 120 is really nothing new. Several residents who first settled off the dirt road in the early 1980s said about 25 to 30 trucks used to haul out coal every day from the King I Mine, which sits just up the road from King II.

Julie McCue, who’s lived on CR 120 since the 1980s, said the original King I owner once closed down the mine during a winter storm so neighbors could go sledding on the nearby hills. Another time after helping out a stranded coal truck driver, her family was offered a goat as a “thank you.”

She didn’t need the goat, and she didn’t mind helping him out. “We just respected each other,” she said. 

Derek Snyder, another long-time resident, has been running along CR 120 for decades, racking up more than 19,000 miles on that stretch of road.

He said he used to meet people on his runs, neighbors out walking their dogs, bikers and other runners. They’d take the time to stop and chat. “Not anymore,” he explained. “I’m the only one out there.”

At 78, Snyder still runs 3 miles every day and plans to keep running as long as he can. He said the truck drivers are very courteous, but he’s dodging trucks the whole time.

County Road 120 isn’t the only way out of the area, but the alternate route, County Road 119, was deemed unsafe by local officials several years ago.

“We don’t want to shut the mine down … we just want our quality of life back,” McCue explained. “We want less trucks.”

King II first began producing in the mid-2000s. Back then production averaged between 450,000-500,000 tons a year with around 50 trucks on the road each day. In 2009, production increased to a little more than 500,000 tons and 57 trucks.

Since then, the numbers have gone up exponentially. The company’s peak production was in 2014 with 970,790 tons and 110 trucks on the road every day, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

“It’s like turning up the temperature on a pot of water,” explained Gary Grantham, who also lives on CR 120. “Eventually it starts to boil, but you’re not even aware what’s going on.”

These days coal trucks don’t run on Sundays, bringing production down in 2015 to 821,509 tons and 93 trucks a day Monday-Saturday. 

GCC, a division of Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, based in Chihuahua, Mexico, has offered some solutions. 

For example, they’ve told McCue and other residents they would build barrier walls in front of their property to help with the noise and dust from haul trucks and employee vehicles. 

But McCue, for one, said she doesn’t want a wall. 

Another resident living next to CR 120, Karen Hunzeker, said she doesn’t know if the walls are a good or a bad idea. “That would be living behind the confines of that wall – I don’t know if I want to do that,” she added.

GCC has also voluntarily instituted speed limits below what’s posted, prohibited the use of engine brakes, initiated speed monitoring and quarterly driver training, increased water application to the road to mitigate dust, added identification numbers on trucks and created a complaint hotline to make reporting violations easier. 

“We are respectful of the community’s interests and have committed to invest over $10 million in road improvements and, significantly and immediately, curtail current business volume to ensure we address concerns,” GCC’s Vice President of Energy and Environment Gina Nance said in an email.

Many of these improvements are part of a plan required by the county called the Road Improvement Agreement, or RIA. 

Future upgrades include paving more of CR 120, widening portions of the road and putting up the barrier walls. This process is scheduled to take place over several years. ?

The RIA is part of a permit application currently pending with the county. 

When GCC first opened the King II, it was told it did not need a local permit. The thought was GCC did not need to apply for a land-use permit with La Plata County because its operations were on property owned by the State Board of Land Commissioners.

This turned out not to be the case.

In 2010, GCC was informed they needed a county land-use permit after all. Since then, it’s been a years-long process to address concerns, compliance issues and come to an agreement.

GCC Energy Vice President Trent Peterson said the biggest misconception is that the company has been intentionally dragging its feet on this.

“As a company, we really do value compliance with regulatory agencies,” he said. 

Everyone comes to the table on Tues., May 31, when the La Plata County Board of Commissioners will vote on the permit application. The hearing takes place at 8:30 a.m. at the County Administration Building, 1101 E. 2nd Ave. Public comment periods are scheduled for 1 and 6 p.m. The staff recommendation is to approve the permit. 

Of course, that isn’t the end for anyone. 

Road improvements and construction are scheduled to begin this year. Also, GCC has other permits pending with federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management – something other groups are concerned with. 

Wild Earth Guardians, an environmental organization head-quartered in Santa Fe, recently filed an official complaint with the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation, or OSMRE. It asked the federal agency to take the lead on compliance and expansion requests. 

GCC is working with the BLM to expand the mine another 955 subsurface acres with an additional 24 test sites. 

Nance said the company has always cooperated with regulatory agencies, and OSMRE is no exception. “GCC is confident that the agency’s response will show that Wild Earth Guardians’ complaint is meritless,” she said in an email.

A federal moratorium has been issued on new coal leases but Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for Wild Earth Guardians, thinks GCC could fall under the list of possible exceptions. It’s uncertain how the expansion requests will play out in the future or how they could affect the roads.

The question of enforcement over GCC’s agreement with the county remains. According to La Plata Community Development Director Damian Peduto, the county has two tools: the agreement and code enforcement. 

Peduto said if anything has been misunderstood throughout the process, it’s that the agreement between La Plata and the permittee, GCC Energy, is binding and it corresponds to the land use code. 

GCC’s vice president said the agreement truly strikes a balance with the county. He also acknowledged the traffic issue is the most contentious piece of the permitting puzzle.

Under the agreement, GCC could run between 80-120 trucks a day. The total number depends on where they are with construction for the road upgrades. There are also limits on when the trucks can run, but the schedule allows for hauling 24 hours a day. The only exclusion is Sundays. 

One thing residents noted is that when 80 trucks are allowed to travel along the county road in a single day, it actually means 160 passes by their front yard. Each truck must go into the mine, take on a load of coal and head back out. 

“People really don’t believe the mine is down there,” Hunzeker explained. “This is a mining haul road.”