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Deadline for Ironwood mill to clear chip pile passes; company faces new legal action

Colorado and Montezuma County to file a motion for contempt against Ironwood Group
Wood chip pile at Ironwood Mill on June 7 (Shylee Graf/The Journal)

On May 31, time ran out for Ironwood Mill to downsize its chip piles to comply with a stipulated injunction issued by the Montezuma County District Court Nov. 23, 2022.

The original stipulation required the chip pile to be removed by Feb. 28, but Ironwood Mill was granted deadline extensions through the end of May.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has sent inspectors down to evaluate the property and piles and has worked with Montezuma County Attorney Ian MacLaren to ensure the piles are mitigated.

“Ironwood is in violation of the stipulated injunction,” MacLaren said Tuesday at the weekly Board of County Commissioners meeting.

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“CDPHE and I are working on drafting a motion for contempt. We’re going to have that filed by the end of this week,” MacLaren stated. Ironwood Mill filed for a deadline extension with the court, which was opposed by MacLaren and CDPHE. The court denied Ironwood’s request for an extension.

Ironwood Mill could be fined up to $10,000 per day if it is found in contempt. MacLaren explained that the motion would be filed, prompting the court to issue a citation for contempt and set a contempt hearing.

“My hope would be to get a contempt hearing before the end of June,” MacLaren stated.

Wood chip pile at Ironwood Mill on June 7 . (Shylee Graf/The Journal)
On-site housing, steaming vats and extended hours

The mill has been the focus of neighbors’ opposition since it revived a mill operation at 27736 County Road T in Dolores in 2020.

In October 2021, Ironwood Mill proposed on-site housing for employees, installing steaming vats, and extending hours of operation to 24 hours a day to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Community members spoke at the Oct. 14 meeting to raise concerns about these proposed changes.

The mill planned to utilize six housing units with 23 bedrooms and five kitchens to accommodate employees. These units were to span 1½ acres of property.

It also planned to build steaming vats for use in the winter months. All employees were to be laid off for the winter because the company didn’t have the vats to dry logs in, according to Jeff Bunnell, then-CEO of Ironwood Group LLC.

A group of neighboring residents organized by Lana Kelly, who runs the Circle C RV Park and Campground, shared their concerns about the mill’s requests. The RV park neighbors the mill.

Kelly expressed the group’s initial excitement about the mill and the jobs it was bringing to the county at the Oct. 14, 2021 Planning and Zoning meeting. But people staying at the RV park quickly realized that the mill would have an unexpected effect on them.

“We had all this noise, people couldn’t sleep, and there was light shining in everybody’s windows,” Kelly stated. “It’s quieter during the day.”

Discussion of on-site housing postponed

In November 2021, Montezuma County Commissioners decided to postpone discussion of on-site housing for employees. They determined that the wood chip pile at Ironwood Mill needed to be mitigated before any decision about housing was made.

The logs and chip pile at the Ironwood mill in Dolores.

Commissioner Jim Candelaria said that during original discussions regarding the mill, separating wood chip piles by 20 to 30 feet was mentioned, but hadn’t been done at the time.

County Emergency Manager Jim Spratlen had gone out to the site with Dolores Fire Chief Mike Zion, then-County Administrator Shak Powers, and County Public Information Officer Vicki Shaffer. Spratlen told the County Commissioners that he noticed that the mill had made efforts to downsize the wood chip pile.

Mill representatives said they were giving wood away for free, and an Albuquerque company had agreed to purchase some of the chips. New machinery at the mill can separate chip and bark, making them sellable products.

MacLaren stated that it was necessary to come up with a fire mitigation plan before moving forward with on-site housing, as employees would be at risk if a fire ever started.

High-impact permit revoked

County Commissioners voted to revoke Ironwood Mill’s high-impact permit during a meeting Jan. 25, 2022. The permit was granted in 2019.

Spratlen went out and measured the pile ahead of this meeting. At the time, he reported that the pile was 360 feet by 507 feet. At its highest point, the pile was 61 feet high, but on average was between 30 and 35 feet high. He previously said he would like those piles down to 25 feet high.

Mark Harmon, a primary stockholder, and plant manager Wade Bentley attended this meeting to represent Ironwood Mill. The two men had also been involved in discussion of fire mitigation before the meeting.

At the Jan. 25 meeting, Bentley stated that at first, he was told that a single path needed to be carved into the pile. He learned that this was not the case at the first fire mitigation meeting he attended.

County officials said that a main problem with the mitigation plan was a lack of deadlines.

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin expressed his concerns, stating that “there’s no amount of money or value that you can put on a human life or home, and that’s the thing that we have to take seriously.”

According to Jarmon, a representative of the mill reached out to the landfill, asking if they could take some of the chips. Jarmon said that the landfill cleared a spot for the chips, but the mill didn’t reach out again.

After an executive session with MacLaren, the county commissioners emerged and announced their decision to revoke the high-impact permit. MacLaren clarified that Ironwood would be able to reapply for a permit.

In 2020, the log inventory at the Ironwood mill is growing. More than 50 mill workers had been hired, and the company was looking to hire more.
State sets deadlines

CDPHE got involved in 2022 and provided a letter to Ironwood Mill regarding the wood chip pile.

An update posted on the Montezuma County Colorado Facebook page stated that CDPHE informed the mill that it “failed to meet the minimum standards of the Solid Wastes Disposal Sites and Facilities Act as well as Regulations Pertaining to Solid Wastes Disposal Sites and Facilities.”

The update outlined the actions the mill needed to take. Ironwood Mill would need to write back to CDPHE with an action plan for clearing the chip pile within 30 days. A compliance conference would need to be scheduled within 45 days to discuss pile removal. The mill would also need to have the chip pile cleared by June 15, 2022.

Montezuma County and CDPHE worked together to ensure the requirements are met. If the mill failed to comply, it could face legal action, the update said.

Evacuation plans

Residents neighboring the mill remained concerned about the fire threat the wood chip pile poses.

Early last year, discussion of evacuation plans began. Emergency officials and community members worked together to find an effective plan to avoid chaos breaking out if a fire were to spark at the mill. Nowlin advised residents to pack bags with important documents, medications, and other necessary items, just in case they needed to leave quickly.

A fire truck capable of climbing on top of the wood chip pile in case of a fire is ready if needed. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Legal action

Because of missed deadlines, the Board of County Commissioners and CDPHE Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division filed a lawsuit Sept. 26, 2022, with possible fines of up to $10,000 per day.

Ironwood Mill was found to be out of compliance with a consent order handed down by CDPHE in July during Aug. 31 and Sept. 13 inspections.

By early October, the mill had divided the original pile into two piles, separated by a 20-foot gap, with the goal of having four piles with 30-foot gaps by Oct. 8. The mill also estimated at that time that the pile had been reduced by 24%.

In October, the state guidelines stated that 50% of the pile must be removed by the end of December, and the remaining material needed to be gone by the end of February of this year.

On Nov. 23, the Montezuma County District Court issued a stipulated injunction to Ironwood Group, reiterating that the chips must be gone by Feb. 28.

Bentley said in early December that the company was on track to meet these deadlines.

At that time, Pioneer Landscaping in Montrose was taking two truckloads per day.

The injunction additionally required that Ironwood check the temperature of the pile weekly to ensure that the risk for combustion remains low. The Montezuma County Sheriff and the Dolores Volunteer Fire Department must be notified if temperatures reach dangerous levels.

Deadlines to have the pile removed were extended to May 31, and the court will not grant another extension. Instead, Montezuma County and CDPHE will file a motion of contempt and will hopefully have a hearing by the end of June, MacLaren said.

New beginnings

Ironwood hoped to reopen as a full plywood manufacturing facility once the wood chip pile was in compliance with state requirements. The mill was working with potential investors to come up with $100 million last year in hopes of making their goal happen.

Wood chips are incorporated into plywood manufacturing, meaning waste piles would be eliminated if Ironwood were to reopen.

As of October, the mill planned to reapply for a high-impact permit and special use permits to resume operations. However, the timeline has changed significantly for removal of the chip pile, so it is unclear if this is still the goal for the mill.