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Ironwood mill issued court injunction to remove giant wood chip pile

Heavy equipment is busy clearing out the wood chip pile at the old Ironwood site, loading up vehicles with free wood chips for anyone who wants them. (Sam Green/Special to the Journal)
New management reports company on track to meet deadlines; goal is to restart operations next year

Montezuma County and the Ironwood mill near Dolores have entered into a court-ordered agreement to remove a massive chip pile in violation of state disposal regulations.

The stipulated injunction issued Nov. 23 by Montezuma County District Court requires Ironwood Group LLC to remove the chips by Feb. 28.

Mill Manager Wade Bentley said the company is on track to meet the deadlines.

“We’ve hired a bunch of trucks, and should be able to get it all out by then,” he said Friday.

The pile is estimated to be 128,000 cubic yards, down from 180,000 cubic yards.

The Montezuma County landfill has agreed to take about half the chips. The landfill will use the material for its composting program and as mulch for vegetation projects.

Ironwood also is giving away the chips to Pioneer Landscaping in Montrose.

“They come with two trucks per day,” Bentley said.

The chips are still being offered free to anyone who wants them, he said. Chips can be loaded Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Delivery also can be arranged. Haulers check in at the front gate station at 27930 County Road T. Semitrailers are available for hire.

According to the injunction, 36,000 cubic yards must be removed by Dec. 31; 42,000 cubic yards must be removed by Jan. 31; and 50,000 cubic yards must be removed by Feb. 28.

By Dec. 31, the pile must be separated into two piles with a minimum spacing of at least 40 feet.

Failure to comply with the requirements could result in fines of up to $10,000 per day.

Wade Bentley shows the path being made through the wood chip pile at Ironwood so fire crews can navigate through if there was ever a fire started in the pile. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Trucks, including the blue firetruck standing by, are busy working away at the Ironwood wood chip pile. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Veneer sheets go through a lathe during previous operations at Ironwood mill near Dolores. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

The injunction also requires Ironwood to check the temperatures of the piles weekly to determine whether they are in danger of combustion.

Bentley said the temperature checks are showing the piles are far below dangerous levels. If the reach they reach a dangerous level, the Montezuma County Sheriff and Dolores Volunteer Fire Department must be notified.

The mill plans to work with Montezuma County on reapplying and renewing its operating permits, which were revoked in October 2021 because the chip pile was in violation of state regulations and created a fire hazard.

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Neighbors also had numerous complaints about mill impacts, including noise, hours of operation, fire danger and lights.

Bentley said the plan is to upgrade operations and restart as a full plywood factory, which he said would create 200 jobs.

The mill had been producing just the veneer portion of plywood, which was then shipped to other factories. The veneer is created from peeled ponderosa pine.

“Our goal is to renew our permits with the county and start up with a full plywood plant, but we are taking one step at a time by getting ride of this pile,” Bentley said.

The timber for the mill is logged from the San Juan National Forest, which has initiated logging projects to reduced overstocked forests prone to large wildfires and beetle kill.

The mill is operating under new management and promises to improve relations with the county and neighbors, Bentley said. Investors have signed a letter of intent to help finance operations.

To prevent the chip piles from happening again, Ironwood plans to sell waste products from the milling process to pellet mills and mulching companies like Miracle Grow.

“It is a profitable revenue stream, and essential for the overall operation,” Bentley said.

Key to that process is installation of equipment that separates bark and wood chips. The two products have market demand.

Chips are sold for mulching operations, and the bark is bought by pellet mills because of its higher BTU content. Pellet mills create fuel used in stoves.

The chips and bark products from the milling process would be placed in bins at the mill for loading by buyers and would not be stored in piles.

If all goes well, the mill hopes to restart operations by next fall.

“Everywhere I go I run into past employees who are eager to be hired back,” Bentley said.

Injunction a result of lawsuit

The mill began operations in 2020, but ran into problems because it did not have a certificate of designation from the county for solid waste disposal for the wood chips. It also did not have an engineering operations plan approved by CDPHE to qualify for an exemption of the certificate of designation.

After an inspection in July, the CDPHE Waste Disposal Division issued a consent order for the mill to remove the chip pile. Inspections Aug. 31 and Sept. 13 found that no progress had been made dividing the piles.

Citing missed deadlines, the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners and CDPHE Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division filed a lawsuit Sept. 26 against the mill, saying it failed to comply with the consent order.