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Know the West

Cementing demand for coal


Those who are fighting to keep coal in the ground, and the dirty byproducts of burning it out of the air, must at times feel like they’re playing whack-a-mole. Every time they score a victory, the industry finds a way around it. That’s exactly what’s happening in the southwestern corner of Colorado, where a coal mine is trying to expand, even as the industry seems to be in crisis. How? By supplying coal to cement kilns, which are making a comeback now that the housing market is rebounding.

This part of Colorado isn’t typically thought of as coal country, but it should be. The Durango-Pagosa coal field -- a continuation of the New Mexico formation that powers two massive power plants -- stretches across parts of three counties and contains billions of tons of low-sulfur, high energy-content coal. It also contains a lot of coalbed methane, helping make the area one of the top natural gas producers in the state and nation. 

This was one of the areas that experienced an uproar in 1906, when, with the West facing a coal famine, President Theodore Roosevelt withdrew 64 million acres of coal-bearing land from homesteading. Even those who had already homesteaded and worked the land couldn’t patent it unless they could prove that the coal underneath wasn’t valuable. Congress was outraged. Finally, in 1909, the government reached a compromise and passed the Coal Lands Act, which allowed the feds to issue patents on land that reserved the coal underneath for the government. The thorny split estate -- in which the surface and minerals underneath are owned by two separate entities -- was born (and, even more thornily, extended to oil and gas in 1914). In this part of Colorado, the act gained greater significance in 1938 when all the coal under the 1880 Ute Reservation was reserved for the Ute tribe.

Up until the 1930s, at least, coal mining was one of the major industries in the region, with mines of various sizes scattered about, mostly west of Durango. Then natural gas -- initially from northern New Mexico -- flooded onto the scene in the 1920s, and Durango’s smelters and large coal burners started switching over. The coal industry withered, to be replaced by gas drilling rigs and pumpjacks. But coal didn’t die entirely: I remember, as a kid, going out to a coal mine West of town with my grandfather to load the pickup with coal to burn in the stoves. And our neighbor back then -- a short, stocky bald guy of Italian descent, always covered with coal dust -- owned his own little mine. One of the mines that persevered was King Coal, in the aptly named Hay Gulch -- the U-shaped valley's bottom is one continuous hayfield/pasture -- in the foothills of the La Plata Mountains. It was as well known for its sometimes gun-toting, mining-inspector-chasing owner, Violet Smith, as it was for its coal. King Coal shut down in 2009, but its nearby successor, King Coal II, was producing by then. The underground mine churns out some 600,000 tons of high BTU coal per year. This coal goes not to power plants, but mostly to cement kilns (and to the local narrow gauge train). The mine is owned by GCC, or Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, a Mexico-based company that is one of the largest cement companies in the world, with cement kilns in Mexico and big ones in Pueblo, Colo., and Tijeras, NM. 

GCC is doing well, reporting a 13 percent increase in sales from last year, an indication that the construction industry is, indeed, making some sort of rebound. And as sales increase, so does the need for coal for the cement kilns. That’s why King Coal II is hoping the Bureau of Land Management will allow it to expand underneath an additional 952 acres of private land, up yearly production and extend the life of the mine. Most of the land over the mine is part of a sprawling ranch owned by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. Since it's not part of the reservation, however, the tribe does not own the coal underneath, and doesn't stand to benefit from the mining (that nasty split estate raises its head again).

Neighbors aren’t thrilled reports Emery Cowan in the Durango Herald: Already, some 70 to 80 big rigs (all of which are, surprisingly white and spotless) enter or leave the mine each day, most of them bound for a railroad loading area near Gallup, NM, 130 miles to the south, the rest going directly to customers. That could increase to 100 trucks per day under the expansion, and each truck kicks up a thick cloud of dust on the long stretches of gravel road that haven't gotten the anti-dust treatment. The people who live near the mine are also mostly on wells, and they worry about how increased mining might affect the groundwater. Yet the mine also provides 100 regular jobs and that much again to contractors, as well as $475,000 per year in revenue to the county. With the natural gas industry around here in the doldrums, thanks to low prices, those benefits aren’t going to be given up easily. 

Of course, the environmental impacts don't end at the local level. Cement kilns are notoriously nasty, especially when it comes to their mercury emissions. Burning the coal to fire the kilns releases some pollutants, including mercury, but that’s typically dwarfed by the amount emitted by the firing of the limestone itself. As a result, cement plants are some of the worst mercury polluters in the nation, also spewing out a host of other toxic materials, not unlike coal power plants. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency handed down a rule that would dramatically cut mercury emissions beginning in 2013. However, earlier this year, the agency proposed delaying the rules for existing plants until 2015.

Like utilities, cement manufacturers may start switching to cleaner-burning natural gas or, as is the case in some places, tires. Yes, tires. Here's a cool video, by the Louisville Courier-Journal, of a "tire pitcher," which tosses the tires into the fire at 85 mph, at a Cemex (also Mexican-owned) plant.


In the meantime, cement production seems to be slowly climbing back out of the hole it fell into when the housing boom busted (cement consumption trends mirror housing starts). And despite the cement industry’s cries that the EPA rules would just send cement making overseas, 94 percent of cement consumed domestically is also manufactured here (China produces 20 times more cement than the U.S., but the U.S. gets only a tiny percentage of that as imports). 

Cement kilns aren’t going to save the coal industry. But it’s enough demand to inspire a small coal mine to expand, even when the industry is languishing. 

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor for High Country News. He's based in Durango, Colo., and his Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.

Photos of the King Coal II Mine, and an historic mine structure and modern house nearby, by the author.