The Ironwood mill in Dolores is too far behind schedule to assuage the threat of fire on its property and has lost its proposed high-impact permit, the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners decided Tuesday.
Commissioners voted to revoke the wood manufacturing plant’s high-impact permit, effectively halting proposed changes that could have allowed expansion plans including on-site housing, 24/7 operations and steaming vats.
The decision came amid mounting concern about a sweeping wood chip pile on the mill’s property, which on Jan. 11 prompted commissioners to discuss a possible criminal investigation should a fire break out.
During the Jan. 11 meeting, commissioners voted to reject the mill’s edited fire mitigation plan after county officials said it was submitted late and did not reflect county edits.
The sea of wooden debris off County Road T poses a fire risk and dredges up memories of the Aspen Wall Wood fire outside Dolores, the Western Excelsior Corp. fire in Mancos and even the Marshall Fire in Boulder.
All were mentioned by county officials who took to the lectern Tuesday to discuss the mill’s progress with fire prevention.
The mill, owned by Ironwood Group LLC, has fallen short in its efforts to reduce the size of the piles, county officials said.
Jim Spratlen, head of Montezuma County of Emergency Management, said he measured the pile to be 360 feet by 507 feet and, at its deepest, 61 feet high. On average, the pile is 30 to 35 feet high.
It would take an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 loads to transport the chips off the property using 23-yard trailers, said Planning and Zoning Director Don Haley.
Testimonials from the mill have been “riddled with false statements and deception,” Spratlen said.
As Tuesday’s meeting commenced, officials were left with many of the questions they have raised in previous mill discussions, most notably: When would the dangerous chip pile be sufficiently reduced?
Mill representatives struggled to answer.
Primary stockholder Mark Hartman joined Ironwood plant manager Wade Bentley to represent the mill at the public hearing.
They disagreed with county officials on how and when fire mitigation communications had been issued, and claimed they faced changing guidelines. County officials disagreed.
Hartman said the mill only recently became aware of the measures required to bring its chip piles into compliance.
It wasn’t until last week, he said, that a copy of the fire use code, which outlines necessary procedures, was sent to them.
Haley disagreed, offering a verbal timeline that indicated the mill began to receive notice of expected fire mitigation measures in spring. And, he said, fire mitigation “came to the forefront” in each discussion about Ironwood’s recent applications.
Other officials reiterated Haley’s timeline and echoed his sentiments that the mill has had ample opportunity to address the pile.
The mill has removed 110 truckloads of logs and 38 loads of wood chips since August, mill representatives said.
“We as a company want to do everything humanly possible that we can do to get into compliance and remain into compliance from an operational standpoint,” Hartman said.
Hartman provided an estimate of $200,000 to $400,000 for chip removal but added that the mill would not have the money unless additional investors were recruited, he said.
A Salt Lake City wood pellet mill picked up an initial sample load of chips Tuesday morning, and Hartman said he hoped the company would draft an official agreement to take the entire pile.
He expected a decision by next week.
Hartman repeatedly emphasized that the mill wouldn’t resume operations until it was in compliance with fire standards.
Looking to the future, he said an incinerator would eliminate wood chipper noise.
He also spoke of plans to transform the mill into a plywood manufacturing site.
Monthslong conversations about the mill’s proposals for expansion have become increasingly tense.
Plant manager Bentley said he originally was told a singular path had to be carved through the pile. The first fire mitigation meeting he attended was “rather embarrassing” for him when he was told otherwise, he said.
He said he thought he went “over and beyond” what was originally required for a fire mitigation plan.
A key problem with that plan, officials said, was a lack of deadlines.
Bentley argued that neighbors’ complaints led to more pressure from the county and that he perceived “personal attacks” in the meetings.
“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,” said Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin. “I just ask that we get this done by whatever means as soon as possible.”
Dolores Fire Chief Mike Zion said the $200,000 cost of chip removal pales when compared with the cost of a fire.
Montezuma County Landfill Manager Mel Jarmon said a mill representative reached out Jan. 12 asking whether the landfill would take some of the mill’s chips. Jarmon said a space was cleared for them, but that the mill did not reach out again.
After about 1½ hours of initial discussion and presentations Tuesday, a passionate public comment session ensued, during which neighbors of the mill – who have loyally followed the mill’s proposed permits – protested the high-impact permit and voiced fear that they’d be caught in a line of fire emanating from the mill’s inaction.
After neighbors expressed their concerns, the commissioners entered into an executive session for legal advice regarding the mill’s high-impact permit from County Attorney Ian MacLaren.
They ultimately decided to revoke the permit.
Ironwood may apply for a high-impact permit again, MacLaren said.