Proposal stirring questions in North Fork Valley
What began as a quiet request for a technical adjustment to a coal mining permit has prompted a deluge of questions about what could become of Colorado’s first coal gasification plant.
Bowie Resource Partners last month submitted a proposal to Colorado mining regulators to develop a plant that would process coal waste using heat, pressure and chemicals to create a synthetic gas that could be used to generate electricity or diesel fuel. The plan involves using a new technology — offered by a Bahamian company — that would process up to 72 tons of coal waste a day at the mining company’s Bowie #2 Mine near Paonia, which it idled this year as the coal industry weathers a nationwide collapse.
Last week the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety mailed a dozen letters to stakeholders — local, state and federal officials as well as Western Slope conservation groups — informing them of Bowie Resource’s complete appli-
cation for a gasification facility.
The Kentucky-based Bowie Resource Partners — with one coal mine in Colorado and three in Utah — is fielding public comments on the proposal, per state requirements for permit revisions. But the company’s representatives in Paonia and Kentucky declined to comment on the plan for a gasification facility.
“We don’t know what’s going on and we have a lot of questions,” said Natasha Leger, interim executive director for the Paonia-based Citizens for a Healthy Community, which advocates for additional environmental protections from oil and gas development in southwest Colorado. “It seems like they are trying to do something under the radar with an unprecedented type of plant and we want answers. This was submitted as a technical revision of a coal mining operation but it sounds like something significantly bigger that the public has a right to weigh in on.”
The application calls for developing a modular “DAXIOM” facility, using technology owned by El Camino Duro Investments in the Bahamas. The Bowie application calls it a “state-of-the-art gasification process operated in a closed, oxygen-deprived environment … generating virtually no pollution.” Bowie said it would build the facility at the site of its existing coal stockpile at the Bowie #2 Mine. The process would involve incinerating dried, crushed coal waste using machines capable of processing 72 tons a day and operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year without interruption.
The system would create, according to the application, “next generation, high-performance, ultra-clean alternative transport fuels” like lowsulphur diesel, and would generate a “solid, powder-like” residue waste that could be processed into pellets for use in cement.
The facility would be the first in Colorado and would join only two large-scale Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plants converting coal into synthetic fuels in the U.S.: one in Indiana and one in Mississippi. Coal gasification plants are all over China, though. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy says coal gasification “offers one of the most versatile and clean ways to convert coal into electricity” and predicts the process “will be at the heart of future generations of clean coal technology plants.” The office predicts that smallscale, modular approaches to developing gasification plants — like the one Bowie is proposing, where the company envisions five modular structures — helps reduce the capital cost that has made gasification plants less feasible in recent years.
Still, it’s a first for Colorado regulators.
“We only very recently received this proposal, and we’re still sorting out our role, and potentially that of other relevant agencies,” said Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve not really had an application like this before and still trying to figure out how it fits into our, or others’, review process.”
Delta County officials are still waiting for correspondence from Bowie Resource about the new plan for its coal mine, said county administrator Robbie LeValley.
Fewer locales have borne the brunt of coal’s collapse in Colorado more than Delta County — where an estimated 1,000 jobs have evaporated in the last three years as the coal industry withers. The latest blow came this year when Bowie Resource idled its Bowie #2 Mine, eliminating more than 100 jobs. The shutdown followed Oxbow Mining’s closure of the county’s Elk Creek Mine near Somerset in 2013.
“We have definitely taken an economic hit,” LeValley said. “That’s why we are interested in what Bowie is thinking and we are willing to sit down with them on the restructuring or format or how this might work out.”
LeValley is curious how many workers a gasification plant would employ. Will it employ only a few workers, like Aspen Skiing Co.’s $5.4 million methane capture facility atop the Elk Creek Mine, which generates $150,000 worth of electrical power every month? Or will it need dozens of workers like the coal mine operation?
The more jobs, the better, DeValley said.
Delta County has spent the last three years laboring to develop a more diverse economy that relies less on coal. Broadband internet expansion and economic incentive packages and grants are attracting small businesses and manufacturers. But the county still wants mining to “balance with other industries in the county” LeValley said.
The application submitted by Bowie Resource’s contracted consultants at Grand Junction’s J.E. Stover & Associates, said the plant would be capable of processing more than just coal waste, including organic materials, household waste, wood, tires, biomass and hospital waste.
Could the Bowie plant become a processor for all kinds of waste, wonders Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice, which provides legal representation to conservation groups.
“Colorado mining regulators should not speed ahead with permitting for this major industrial facility when the public has so little information about the gasification plant or its potential impacts to human health and the environment,” Zukoski said. “There are a ton of questions out there that need answers first.”
Last week, Bowie Resource representatives asked the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety to push back a decision on the gasification proposal to the end of December.
Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, which in 2015 successfully sued the federal government for not addressing climate change impacts when approving coal mine expansions in northwest Colorado, wants a longer delay. He has a litany of questions.
Among his questions: Is the gasification plant’s waste toxic? Is the process toxic? Will the facility process synthetic oil on site? Will that mean there will be oil trains running through the North Fork Valley? Will there be any more coal mining at Bowie #2?
“It’s a stretch to call this clean energy,” Nichols said. “This isn’t a coal mine anymore. This is basically turning it into a refinery. A refinery is a very intensive, complicated, risky endeavor and at the end of the day it’s a very dirty operation. To us, this is another sign that the coal industry is grasping to stay alive and find its future.”