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Mill has until June to clear chip pile; residents get evacuation plans

The sawdust and wood chip pile at the Ironwood mill in Dolores. (Kala Parkinson/The Journal)
County officials working with residents on fire plan

For months, the Ironwood mill in Dolores has been the subject of community and county criticism for its failure to effectively reduce a sweeping wood chip pile on its property amid contested – and now halted – expansion plans.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has since ordered the mill to remove the sawdust and chip pile by June 15.

That was explained in a news release Wednesday from Montezuma County. County officials continue to monitor the pile that has raised concern about its potential to ignite a fire.

And while there is always a chance of a fire, Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said, he and other emergency officials are working with nearby residents to plan for a safe evacuation in the event of a fire.

CDPHE’s Hazardous Materials Waste Division informed Ironwood on March 10 that the chip pile was not in compliance with the minimum standards of the Solid Wastes Disposal Sites and Facilities Act, the news release said.

That notice asked Ironwood to outline plans for reducing the pile in a written response within 30 days and to schedule a compliance conference within 45 days to further discuss a removal schedule and solutions.

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CDPHE, and potentially the county, may consider legal action if the mill fails to bring its property into compliance with environmental regulations, the news release said.

In January, Jim Spratlen, head of Montezuma County Office 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 was measured to be 30 to 35 feet high.

The county is unsure how much progress has been made in reducing the pile since then.

The Journal contacted Jeff Bunnell for comment, but was informed on Sunday that he has stepped down as CEO of IronWood Group LLC.

The sea of wood 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.

A resident neighboring the mill initiated conversations with the county to discuss potential evacuation plans.

Joellen Dickey, who lives on Road T. 5, is serving as an unofficial liaison between fire officials and residents bordering the mill.

“They can’t wave a magic wand and make it (the pile) go away,” she said. “What we can try to do is survive it.”

A plan would prevent residents from “running around and panicking” in the event of a fire, she said.

“It’s been an interesting process observing the lack of mitigation, and frightening that a big hazard has been created,” she said.

She and other residents praised county government and emergency officials, including Dolores County Fire Chief Mike Zion, Nowlin and Spratlen for their involvement.

The residents were advised to sign up for Nixle alerts, which provide emergency notifications by text and email.

A tabletop session at the Dolores Fire Office April 12 will facilitate conversations about evacuation plans and identify individuals who may need evacuation assistance.

John Godbout, manager of neighboring Circle C RV Park and Campground off Road T, said that he’d seen “trucks here and there” but hadn’t noticed a significant reduction to the pile.

When The Journal visited Circle C on Thursday, the mill was silent.

“This is just how it’s been,” Godbout said.

Godbout echoed the sentiments that other residents have expressed to The Journal, and said that many of the mill’s neighbors are frustrated that mitigation has taken so long, but grateful that the county is working to resolve the issues.

“The outrage has already been shown in the meetings with the county,” he said.

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin doesn’t want the residents to worry.

He is advising the mill’s neighbors to pack go-bags now with things like important papers, medications and pet carriers. He visited several neighbors of the mill this week, listening to their concerns and urging them to remain calm and trust the Sheriff’s Office and other emergency officials to safely get them out if a fire does erupt.

His office has a list of volunteers willing to help residents move trailers, horses, cattle and other items.

Unlike the slash pile that caused the Aspen Wall Wood fire outside Dolores, the chip pile at Ironwood is above ground, he said. Much of the land near the mill is “cleared out” and open, he added.

A log pile at the Ironwood mill in Dolores. (Kala Parkinson/The Journal)

A fire would be more severe if it spilled into a nearby canyon, although he doesn’t think that is likely.

Regardless, he said he would “go up in flames” before letting anyone get hurt.

“We’ll be able to get people out without any problem,” he said.

Fires can be caused by any number of factors and “can happen anywhere in the county,” he said. Lightning strikes are perhaps the most concerning instigators, he said.

County commissioners in January 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.

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.

In that January meeting, mill representatives argued that they faced changing guidelines from the county, to which county officials contended that the mill had ample and clear notice of what was expected to bring its violations into compliance.

Officials were left with many of the questions they had raised in previous mill discussions, most notably: When would the dangerous chip pile be sufficiently reduced?

Mill representatives struggled to answer.

They expressed a desire to bring the mill into compliance but provided an estimate of $200,000 to $400,000 for chip removal and added that the mill would not have the money unless additional investors were recruited.

The mill representatives spoke of potential solutions, including entering into an agreement with a Salt Lake City wood pellet mill that would pick up the chips, as well as eventually transforming the mill into a plywood manufacturing site.

The mill laid off its employees in October because the company had no steaming vats installed to dry wood.

It has not reopened since.

This article was republished Sunday, April 3, to reflect that Jeff Bunnell is no longer the CEO of IronWood Group LLC.