Residents perturbed by the constant drum of trucks hauling coal from GCC Energy’s King II mine say the sound has abated somewhat with the near completion of the company’s multimillion-dollar road improvement project.
“There was a lot of dust and noise over the years,” said Karen Hunzeker, who lives along County Road 120. “But with their improvements, it’s much quieter and there’s a lot less dust.”
Mining for coal in Hay Gulch, an area about 20 miles west of Durango, has been going on since the 1940s.
But the operation exponentially picked up when Mexico-based cement producer Grupos Cementos de Chihuahua, operating under the name GCC Energy, purchased the King I and King II coal mines in 2007.
At the time, La Plata County did not require GCC Energy to obtain a land-use permit, saying the mine was under state and federal purview. But the county reversed that decision in 2010, setting off six years of negotiations for a land-use permit.
In June 2016, La Plata County approved a Class II land-use permit for the King II mine, but an integral part of the deal was that GCC Energy must improve County Road 120, the gateway to the mine.
Ever since GCC Energy ramped up production, residents along County Road 120 have logged a flurry of complaints about noise, dust and truckers driving too fast.
On any given day, neighbors could see anywhere from 160 to 240 trucks pass by.
As a result, La Plata County attached a condition to GCC Energy’s land-use permit: Make $10 million in improvements to County Road 120. In turn, GCC Energy would be allowed to increase the amount of daily truck trips.
After two years of work, Chris Dorenkamp, mine manager, said most of the project is complete.
A little more than two miles have been paved and realigned to meet county standards, Dorenkamp said, and the company reconstructed a 90-degree corner that presented safety concerns.
So far, GCC Energy has spent $6.75 million for improvements, focused on the stretch of County Road 120 that has homes along it. The completion of this part of the project on June 30 means GCC Energy can run 80 round-trips a day.
Dorenkamp said the entire project should be complete in 2020.
For residents, the paved road has decreased noise and greatly reduced the amount of dust kicked up.
“The feedback is mostly positive,” Dorenkamp said.
Julie McCue, a County Road 120 resident, said GCC Energy’s project has improved noise and dust issues. But, she’s worried about the amount of trucks the company can run when the project is completed.
As part of the land-use permit, GCC Energy can run a maximum of 120 round-trips a day.
“The main issue always was the traffic,” McCue said. “That issue was never resolved.”
The approval of GCC Energy’s land-use permit was a contentious process that regularly packed county meetings. McCue said a misconception circulated that residents along County Road 120 wanted to shut the mine down.
“We never wanted to shut them down,” she said. “We just wanted it to be scaled back and be more thoughtful so we don’t have 240 trucks going past our houses every day.”
Mark Schultz, who lives off County Road 120, said many of the same issues linger, with trucks speeding down the county road now that it’s paved and a lack of communication to residents.
“It’s good news, bad news,” Schultz said. “Right now if traffic goes up, that’s just nuts. It’s just too much.”
Dorenkamp said GCC Energy has taken steps to resolve these issues.
Truck drivers go through quarterly trainings, and trucks have large numbers written on them so residents can report if they are speeding. The company has also created a webpage to keep residents updated about construction.
GCC Energy stopped running trucks on Sundays.
Residents may request additional sound and visual barriers. Hunzeker, for example, requested a concrete barrier in front of her house.
“That’s really helped with noise,” she said.
In December, the Bureau of Land Management approved GCC Energy’s request to expand its mine another 950 acres of underground workings, which is expected to extend the mine’s life until at least 2023.
GCC Energy had previously said the current mine workings were set to run out of reserves by 2020.
Calls to the BLM were not returned Tuesday.
The expansion is expected to keep 90 to 100 jobs in the community, as well as the associated maintenance fees and royalties GCC Energy pays every year. Dorenkamp said the mine pays $5 million in local, state and federal taxes.
Dorenkamp said 120 daily trips is the maximum amount of trucks GCC can run. The exact number will depend on market demands.
McCue, who purchased her home in the 1970s, said the impacts of the trucks are just something residents have to learn to live with.
“It still breaks my heart,” she said. “Back in the day, we always respected each other. Do they really have to run so many trucks?”