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Ironwood mill juggles lawsuit with plans for $100 million startup

Heavy equipment is clearing the wood chip pile at the site of the Ironwood mill and loading vehicles with free chips for anyone who wants them. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
New management commits to removal of massive wood piles; company plans for new permit, improved operations

New management at the Ironwood mill in Dolores has made progress to reduce a massive chip pile and hopes to reapply for a new permit to manufacture plywood.

But many problems would need to be solved first, including mitigating impacts to neighbors and resolving a lawsuit filed against the mill by Montezuma County and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

The troubled mill started up in 2020 to manufacture veneer – a component of plywood – from ponderosa pine harvested from the San Juan National Forest.

But the revived mill, shuttered since the 1950s, has had a host of problems, which forced it to shut down in October 2021 in a swirl of controversy.

Montezuma County revoked the mill’s operation permits for failing to mitigate a massive pile of wood chips and logs that has created a fire hazard and public safety issue.

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)

The mill did not have a certificate of designation from the county for solid waste disposal for the wood chips and did not have an engineering operations plan approved by CDPHE to qualify for an exemption of the certificate of designation.

Neighbors have vehemently objected to noise and light pollution from the mill, and feared the potential fire hazard of the chip pile. The mill’s plan to start 24-7 operations further angered neighbors.

A fresh start

New plant manager Wade Bentley said the mill was looking toward a fresh start.

He added that the mill was working with a potential investor group to generate $100 million needed finance plant upgrades into a full plywood mill.

“We are working hard to get into compliance and don’t want to be the problem neighbor,” he said. “We understand the concerns of the community.”

Previous CEO Jeff Bunnell has left the company.

Apr 1, 2022
Mill has until June to clear chip pile; residents get evacuation plans
Jan 26, 2022
Dolores mill’s high-impact permit revoked amid fire concerns
Nov 11, 2021
First of Dolores mill proposals meets public opposition

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. It threatened fines up to $10,000 per day, per violation.

The listed defendants are Ironwood Group LLC; majority owner Mark A. Hartman and Wade Bentley.

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, according to the lawsuit complaint.

After delays with contractors, the mill is making progress is being made on the pile, Bentley said. The company has since contracted with Independent Log Co. of Cortez to manage the pile and its removal.

One of several semitrailers awaits loading at the old site of the Ironwood mill. (Sam Green/Special to the Journal)
Free wood chips

The mill has offered free wood chips. It assists with loading and in some cases has offered free delivery.

A landscaping company in Montrose has been hauling away semi loads and has stated it would take the entire pile, Bentley said. A company in Albuquerque has brought semitrailers to load up the free chips.

The size of the original pile was and estimated 170,000 cubic yards. Bentley said he estimates it is down to 130,000 cubic yards, a 24% reduction.

“We’re seeing the truckloads going out now,” he said. “If the state allows an extension on time, the landscape company said they would take the pile.”

The chips also have potential value for a pellet mill that creates products for wood-fired heaters.

Controlled pile burn

The first priority is to give away as many wood chip loads a possible, said Tony Moore, owner of Independent Log Co.

“There has been a steady stream of people,” he said.

He said a secondary plan is to burn what is left over through a burn permit from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. A county burn permit also would be required.

The burn would take place in the winter with snow on the ground, Moore said. The remaining chip pile would be divided into rows for the controlled burn. Local fire departments would be on-site to assist and monitor the burn.

The burn permit lays out parameters and weather conditions before ignition, Moore said.

Trucks, including the blue firetruck standing by, are chip away at the Ironwood wood pile. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Logs are buried throughout the chip pile at the old Ironwood site. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
A firetruck capable of climbing the chip pile in case of a fire is ready if needed. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)

“It is done safely with lots of precautions to prevent spreading,” he said. “It will be in collaboration with local fire department resources.”

Moore hopes to reduce the piles by up to 70%, then burn the rest off if required. Once setup and conditions are met, the burn would take one or two days. Fire crews would monitor the burn 24 hours per day.

Moore said he is an experienced wildland firefighter and his company is hired to fight fires throughout the West. He is a certified burn boss, and has served as an incident commander, task force leader and heavy equipment boss on wildfires.

The controlled burn also would be a training opportunity for local fire departments, he said. His crew put in a fire line for the Pine Gulch fire near Grand Junction.

Divided piles

Bentley stated Tuesday that the chip pile had been split into two piles and crews were working to divide it into four piles by Oct. 8 to comply with the consent order schedule. He said the two piles have a 20-foot gap between them, and the goal is to stretch it to 30 feet, per the state requirement.

According to a state timeline, 50% of the pile is required to be gone by December, and the rest by February.

A firebreak of cleared vegetation and debris has been created around the perimeter of the pile site.

Chip piles can be at risk of combustion from internal heat. The piles are tested weekly with temperature probes, Bentley said, and readings ranged from 88 degrees to 100 degrees, falling below the threshold of 120 to 140 degrees that would require further mitigation because of the threat of ignition.

“There has been no sign of burning or smoldering,” he said.

Neighbors continue to be concerned and skeptical of the mill, said John Godbout, owner of Circle C RV park adjacent to the mill.

He said that during mill operations, the chipper noise impacted his business, and he lost customers. Lights from trucks had a “strobing affect” at night on his home and park residents.

The potential fire hazard also was a constant worry for the neighborhood, a situation magnified by the drought. Escape plans and evacuation routes were drawn up.

“It’s worrisome that there was no forethought on what to do with the waste product. People lost confidence in the ability of the mill to operate responsibly,” he said. “There has been a lot of outrage.”

The noise level on his property from the mill exceeds threshold standards for the county, he said, and a sound barrier was needed.

Mill officials have been meeting with neighbors about the new management and pile mitigation plans.

Godbout said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the progress on the pile removal.

He said neighbors will organize with a list of demands if the mill seeks to renew its permit with the county to start again.

Full plywood company

Ironwood’s goal is to reopen as a full plywood factory, Bentley said, rather than only produce the top veneer portion, which had been shipped out to other factories.

In plywood manufacturing, wood chips from milling are incorporated into the final product, eliminating large waste piles.

To reduce chipper noise, Bentley said the unit would be housed inside a factory rather than placed in the open.

The mill plans to meet with county officials and the community to show progress on consent order compliance and commitment to operate responsibly. The next step will be to reapply for a high-impact permit and special use permits.

“We would like to start up by mid-next year,” Bentley said.

County officials were not available for comment, citing the pending litigation, said Public Information Officer Vicki Shafer.

The free chip program is available Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Check in the front gate station at the mill, at 27930 County Road T. Semitrailers are available for hire.