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IronWood Mill to present mitigation plans before completing disputed proposals

A worker welds part of the new IronWood mill.
Three-acre land purchase and employee housing approved; mitigation plan needed for other permit

Dolores residents on Thursday persuaded the Montezuma County Planning and Zoning Commission to further discuss IronWood Group’s plans for expansion and 24/7 operations, after citing concerns about on-site housing, machinery noise, night lighting and property values.

The planning department agreed to push further discussion to its December meeting. Planning and Zoning Commissioners Zachary Fahrion, Mike Rosso, Stan Pierce, John Hernandez and Eddie Taylor were present to vote. Planning and Zoning Director Don Haley and Administrative Assistant Jane Duncan also attended.

The meeting ran from 6 p.m. to about 10 p.m. Six unrelated permits were granted before the committee addressed the IronWood applications. About 40 people attended the meeting.

Lana Kelly, who runs neighboring Circle C RV Park and Campground, spoke on behalf of a group of mill workers, and RV park and nearby residents that she recently assembled to discuss IronWood operations.

“At what point are you guys going to take us seriously? What does it take? I mean, are we all liars? Are we making this up, is everybody fabricating this? I don't think so,” Kelly said during the meeting.

Montrose lawyer John Hafen officially represented the opposition group at the meeting. Residents joined in to share their concerns as the planning committee addressed each of IronWood’s three permit applications.

Jeff Bunnell, CEO of IronWood Group LLC, sat before the commissioners and fielded questions from the public.

While each of IronWood’s applications were met with pushback, the first two applications were approved. The third, involving operations, drew the most heated opposition.

  • The first permit for review was an application to buy 3 acres from the mill’s eastern neighbor. Members of the public followed one after the other to the lectern to voice concern about the land use. However, the committee continued to emphasize that it was looking solely at the transaction of land itself. That application was approved unanimously.
  • The second permit involved the creation of a General Planned Unit Development to bring in employees from outside of the county and provide them with a place to live. It passed 4-1, with only Hernandez voting “no.”
  • The third proposal – regarding IronWood’s current high-impact, special use permit – included the mill’s plan to use 1½ acres for housing, to increase hours to a 24/7 operation and to build steaming vats on 3 acres to dry logs.

Public speakers asked that detailed mitigation plans to address noise and light levels — as well as specific expansion drawings — be created before the third application was approved.

“I do think that there should be some type of plan here, because there is a lot of opposition,” said Commissioner Fahrion. “I absolutely do not want to have anything to do with hurting a business. I want business growth here. But I do think there needs to be some consideration for the surrounding folks.”

The other commissioners followed suit, and it was decided that the mill be given time to formulate mitigation strategies and outline specific expansion plans.

The application will be discussed again at the Planning and Zoning meeting Dec. 9, starting at 6 p.m. in Room 205 in the county’s administrative offices at 109 W. Main St.

The main complaints from Dolores residents residing near the mill were concerns about noise, light, on-site housing, where the steaming vats would be located and how they would operate, residual wood chippings, and potential resulting decreased property values.

Toward the end of the meeting, Bunnell said he would work on comprises with a community member the residents nominated.

He also disputed claims that the company was composed entirely of out-of-state investors. Of the three, one resides in Dolores, and another in Ridgway, he said.

Veneer sheets go through a lathe at the new IronWood mill near Dolores.
Operating hours

A major point of contention for Dolores residents was noise that disrupted their sleep.

Residents also questioned whether 24-hour operation had been authorized previously.

Haley said original public hearings discussed that the mill would look to expand its operation to two or three shifts, 24 hours a day. The existing high-impact/special use permit doesn’t allow for it, so it will be amended.

Residents appeared outraged to hear that the mill operated on a verbal agreement.

Bunnell said he wouldn’t have poured $15 million into the business if he couldn’t eventually operate in two 10-hour shifts.

John Godbout, general manager of Circle C RV Park and Campground, said he had measured the decibel level and found noise to exceed threshold standards.

“We’ve addressed every concern that we’ve gotten from the county or anybody else, and we’ve gone and tested all the decibels everywhere that we’ve gotten a complaint,” Bunnell said.

Bunnell said the mill measured decibel levels under or at maximum allowed intensities.

Bunnell said he’d be willing to explore solutions before operations resumed in spring, although it would be impossible to erase all the noise from the chipper machine.

“If you think I sound irritable, you're right,” said Steve Davis, who has lived on Road 28.4 for 16 years. “I’m damned irritable because I haven't had a decent night’s sleep for a couple of years.”

Employee housing

The mill, at 27736 County Road T, aims to house employees in six units with 23 bedrooms and five kitchens on 1½ acres of property. Bunnell said the community hasn’t been able to supply enough employees for the mill.

The housing units are on the property, but are empty and not yet equipped with utilities.

Trent Bishop, a neighboring resident, argued that the placement of the units on the property without authorization violated the land use code.

“Who will agree to small rooms that are smaller than a jail cell or dorm room, and reside within feet of a facility that runs 24/7 high industrial? Who will ensure these vulnerable people are housed in a safe and sanitary environment?” he asked.

Other speakers, including Melissa Valdez, questioned who would be moving into the housing.

“How are they going to keep us safe? Are their employees getting background checks? Do we know that they aren't criminals or felons working there? I am concerned for my safety,” she said.

Haley said merely storing the structures on the property didn’t violate land use code.

“The county land use code does not address background checks for proposed housing anywhere in the county. That would be way overstepping government,” he added.

Rachel Comisky, an employee of two years at the mill, disputed claims that questioned employee character.

“I don't ever remember us ever advertising for felony-friendly employees,” she said. “We care about employees who work there, we would never want to put anybody in a dangerous situation as far as having dangerous people working with this. I don't see how the people who would be housed here would be any different than the RV park.”

Tricia Hale said her husband, an employee of the mill, underwent a background check, a drug test and can be subjected to drug tests at any time.

Steaming vats

All mill staff will be laid off through winter because the company does not yet have the steaming vats needed to dry wood, said Bunnell.

There was an error on the original application that stated the steaming vats would be on the 3 acres being acquired from the mill’s eastern neighbor. This was clarified at the meeting. Bunnell said that blocks to store logs would occupy that new parcel of land, while steaming vats would be located at the back of the will. The mill also would fix a 30-foot pit on the acquired property, he said.

The vats would be 16 feet tall and would help to block out light, he said.

The mill also will excavate the bank on the new 3-acre area of land, decreasing the elevation of machinery, and it will build a back wall there.

One neighboring resident and a frequent speaker of the night, Ed Carpenter, expressed concern that the steaming vats would use chemicals such as xylene or acetone paste to function.

Bunnell said the steaming vats wouldn’t emit harmful substances; rather, they would just use steam to eliminate frost and raise the temperature of logs. He clarified that he doesn’t need permission to build the vats – just to operate them in the proposed extended hours of two 10-hour shifts a day.

Bunnell also said the vats wouldn’t make much noise.

Light levels

“They failed to indicate the threshold standards that there are significant issues with, for example, Standard No. 24: direct light going beyond the property. There is direct light shining directly into the windows of the neighbors. That is beyond the threshold standards,” Hafen said.

Bunnell said light issues have not been brought to his attention.

He said he is already failing to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for lighting, trying to be sensitive of shining light onto nearby areas. Mill employees walk down a hill in the dark to get to work, he said.

“Commissioners very clearly said I cannot have plant light leave the site,” he said. “Therefore, I couldn't put 100-foot poles up and run it like a real mill.”

Multiple speakers cited light shining through their windows at late hours. Bunnell suggested reevaluating light levels once excavation of the bank was complete and machinery was lowered.

Wood chippings

Residents complained about wood chippings dusting the area around the mill, as well as a rising chip pile on the property, which Bunnell said the mill is working to downsize.

Mary Ranney said the pile was a “mammoth mountain.”

“We all know about the other fire at the other mill and what kind of an impact that had and this is – from what you can see – this is much larger if you ever see this from the air,” she said. “It's terrifying.”

Others said the chips littered their properties.

“My house is a damn wreck when the wind blows,” said Ray Lewis, neighbor and worker at the mill. “I work there – been all right, some things are good, some things could change. We’ve all got to work together to make this work.”

Emergency Manager Jim Spratlen was called to the lectern, where he informed attendees that he was engaged in an ongoing effort with the locals mills, including IronWood, as well as fire chiefs and the sheriff, to continuously evolve fire mitigation strategies.

IronWood plans to use a few avenues for reducing the chips – donating some to schools, placing some in the landfill, and spraying some red to make a desired product.

Comisky is working with a group to launch a pellet mill.

All mills were given probes to monitor rising wood temperatures, Spratlen said.

“We’ve got all of these ideas, and we're working on it the best we can,” he said. “I think we're moving forward, but not as fast as everybody likes.”

Bunnell said IronWood is also working to transport six to eight truckloads of wood chips to an Albuquerque company.

Long-term, he hopes the mill can generate compost from the wood chips.

Truck traffic

Bunnell said the mill previously made the mistake of allowing logging trucks to be stored on the mill’s property. There were complaints about dangerous driving, although IronWood doesn’t own the trucks. He said he would be willing to install stop signs to make the roads safer.

“I have had blog trucks pull out and almost hit me at 6:30 in the morning, because they did not see me,” Valdez said.