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County worries about potential fire at IronWood mill, requires mitigation before expansion

Amid worry about a potential fire hazard, Montezuma County Commissioners have postponed discussion about on-site housing for employees at the IronWood mill in Dolores.
Approval for on-site housing development postponed until fire mitigation is implemented

Montezuma County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to postpone discussion about on-site housing for employees at the IronWood mill in Dolores until February.

Most mill staff have been laid off for the winter, and county officials said that while the mill experiences an approximate six-month hiatus from regular operation – depending on winter weather – it should first work on combating the growing pile of wood chips on its property at 27736 County Road T. The chips, they said, pose a fire threat, and bring memories of recent past fires — one at the Aspen Wall Wood mill in Dolores and one at the Western Excelsior Corp. mill in Mancos.

Mark Hartman, chief financial officer, and Wade Bentley, plant manager at IronWood, were present for the meeting as commissioners heard the proposal for the 1.5-acre planned unit development on IronWood Group LLC’s property.

“We’ve really been challenged with being able to get enough employees to fully staff the operation,” Hartman said.

A lack of affordable housing in the county has significantly contributed to the mill’s inability to source staff, he said, and pushed Hartman to buy the units currently on the property, which he said would allow workers to “safely and economically put their heads on a pillow at night.”

“Unless we can fully staff the operation, we have no chance of long-term success,” he said.

Planning and Zoning Commissioners voted 4-1 Oct. 14 to recommend the housing proposal to the county commissioners.

Dolores residents neighboring the mill have passionately followed mill expansion plans – including officially shifting to 24/7 operation – and the commissioners meeting Tuesday was no exception.

While residents lauded commissioners for tabling the housing proposals and requiring a fire mitigation plan, they still expressed concern over potential disturbances, including crime, that could result from on-site housing.

Resident Trent Bishop said a petition with signatures from 97 residents urged commissioners to reject the housing proposal. He said that he would start carrying a gun if workers moved onto the mill’s property.

Residents called for additional details on the proposed housing.

Rose Jergens was one of a few residents to question who would move into the facilities. She wondered whether the housing would be like “work camps,” which she said are “hotbeds for rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking,” or “family housing,” which she said could impact children who might live there.

Oct 14, 2021
Dolores residents plan to challenge 24/7 operations, housing at IronWood mill

The housing development would feature 23 bedrooms across six units with five kitchens. The units are already on the property, but they have not yet been equipped with utilities. Planning and Zoning Director Don Haley has disputed claims that it was illegal for the empty units to be stored on the property before they were permitted for use.

Haley said at Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting that the housing proposal wouldn’t affect mill operation. He said he expects the mill to submit a written mitigation plan for its proposals by Feb. 1.

At the meeting, Commissioner Jim Candelaria was a pivotal voice in the call for a fire mitigation plan before mill expansion.

“What we look at when we have a pile like this is we have a smoldering fire that’s going to go on forever,” he said.

He said that in original mill conversations, it was discussed that chip piles would be separated by 20 to 30 feet of space, which hasn’t happened.

He invited County Emergency Manager Jim Spratlen to speak in-depth about the expanding chip pile and fire hazard and mitigation strategies.

Spratlen said he — along with Dolores Fire Chief Mike Zion, County Administrator Shak Powers and County Public Information Officer Vicki Shaffer – visited the sprawling stack Friday.

Spratlen said he noticed that the mill has embarked on efforts to downsize what one resident referred to as a “mammoth mountain” at the Oct. 14 Planning and Zoning meeting.

Mill representatives present at the commissioner’s meeting said several tactics for downsizing were being executed, including giving away wood for free. For example, an Albuquerque company is purchasing some of the chips. The mill said it will no longer add to the pile, thanks to new machinery that will separate chip and bark into sellable products.

Powers added that Montezuma County Landfill Manager Mel Jarmon agreed to compost some of the chips for free. Powers also advised mill representatives to work with Shaffer to bolster marketing strategies to further distribute free wood.

Spratlen estimated the wood chip piles to be 45 to 60 feet high. He wants them reduced to about 25 feet in height.

County Attorney Ian MacLaren clarified that a fire mitigation plan also was necessary before approving on-site housing because employees would face a direct risk of being in the line of any fire.

“We’re not trying to hurt you; however, we’re trying to look out for the entire county to make sure we have this taken care of before we move anything else forward,” Candelaria said to the mill representatives.