This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The beeping trucks and growling earth movers echo across the canyon overlooking the Colorado River.
The Mid-Continent Quarry limestone miners blast cliff walls, crush and process debris into aggregate and truck it down into the valley, where a riverside tourist town bustles with shoppers, hot spring soakers and gondola riders.
Glenwood Springs’ mining and tourism businesses have worked well together since the early 1980s. But a politically connected new owner of the quarry is threatening that balance with plans to exponentially expand the operation. It’s a scenario playing out across the Western Slope as recreation and tourism rise as vital economic engines alongside the region’s traditional energy and mining industries.
In many places, the two different economies coexist and even complement each other. But in Glenwood Springs, a resort community of 10,000 that was one of Colorado’s first tourist destinations, the proposal to expand the small quarry above town into one of Colorado’s largest gravel pits is galvanizing vehement opposition.
Few communities celebrate gravel pits, even when the aggregate anchors community assets like a grand bridge over the river. Opposition to the quarry expansion plan in Glenwood Springs goes beyond NIMBY and environmental angst over trucks, trains and mountain-top scars. The owner of the mine has deep political connections and admits to an uncertain financial future, raising concerns over expedited approval for what would be one of the largest gravel pits in the state.
“I’m certainly not opposed to the extractive industry. It’s a big part of Garfield County, and I think it can coexist with tourism,” said Steve Beckley, a former petroleum engineer who owns the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, which borders the quarry, and Iron Mountain Hot Springs, which sits across the river from the quarry owner’s new rail yard. “But this mine, right in the middle of a major tourist destination, is not in the right location.”
Beckley doesn’t mind the 20 trucks a day that rumble down lower Transfer Trail below the quarry, which produces about 40,000 to 60,000 tons of limestone aggregate a year. The products from that mine helped build the Grand Avenue Bridge across the river, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the past 25 years on the Western Slope.
But he worries about 450 truck trips a day through town. He worries about those trucks filling 100 train cars with aggregate every day across from his hot springs. He worries that the 50 new jobs from the proposed quarry expansion could cost hundreds of tourism jobs.
“We have a huge tourism economy. That economy will be injured by this mine plan,” Beckley said. “The impacts are just too high. A truck every minute. A train every day. A giant visible scar. All in the middle of this tourist town. This is not the place for one of the largest gravel pits in Colorado.”
Rocky Mountain Resources, based in both Denver and Beverly Hills, bought the Mid-Continent Quarry from CalX Minerals in October 2016 for $2.8 million. The quarry sits on 41 mining claims owned by the Bureau of Land Management and leased by Rocky Mountain Resources, which estimates the mine holds about 106 million tons of high-calcium limestone and 189 million tons of dolomite.
The company is asking the BLM to allow it to grow the quarry to about 320 acres from about 20 acres inside a 447-acre permit. It wants to mine 5 million tons of limestone and dolomite products a year for the next 20 years. In its 455-page proposal to the BLM, Rocky Mountain Resources said the quarry expansion could stir a $22.5 million economic impact in the region, with 50 to 80 workers earning between $55,000 and $70,000 a year.
RMR recently acquired a rail yard on the river in Glenwood Springs, about 2.6 miles from its quarry. In January 2018, RMR bought 620 acres of land outside Watkins, east of the Colorado Air and Space Port and Denver, where it is developing a rail freight yard that will serve as an industrial hub.
In financial statements, the company said the new rail yard will help distribute its Glenwood quarry’s products along the Front Range, noting that metro Denver’s demand for construction aggregate is about 29 million tons a year. Shortages in that supply create “a natural market” for the company’s limestone products.
“We have unique positioning and assets to accomplish this,” reads the company’s 2018 year-end 10K financial statement filed in October.
It’s a big ask in Glenwood Springs. The BLM reviewed the application for completeness last December and sent it back to the company with a 44-page letter outlining 73 areas where the company needed to provide more information before the plan could even be reviewed.
RMR last month sent its revised plan back to the BLM, which has 30 days to review its completeness. If the BLM accepts the proposal, a comprehensive review under the National Environmental Policy Act will follow.
“This plan threatens our community”
A growing league of opposition, including the Glenwood Springs City Council, is urging the BLM to conduct an intensive Environmental Impact Statement review instead of the less robust Environmental Assessment.
“Expansion of the mine would lead to large visual impacts, mire the city in truck traffic, damage the thriving tourist economy, and seriously impact the water quality and air quality for thousands of rural Coloradans,” reads a city council resolution passed last month, which noted that mining and logging comprise about 0.3 percent of the local economy.
Jeff Peterson grew up in Glenwood Springs. He’s raising a family there. His home is in a neighborhood just below the quarry. He helped form the Glenwood Springs Citizens’ Alliance, which has gathered about 1,200 residents, businesses and organizations on a petition urging the BLM to conduct an intensive review of the Rocky Mountain Resources plan.
“And that number is about to rapidly expand,” Peterson said. “As more people learn about this and understand its impacts, they are recognizing that we have to work together. It’s really starting to gel.”
Peterson calls himself a “reluctant activist.” He isn’t opposed to mining. He makes sure to share that his opposition isn’t NIMBYism.
“I just want to make this a place — keep this a place — where people want to visit. Where people want to live,” he said. “This plan threatens our community.”
Rocky Mountain Resources — a division of RMR Industrials Inc. — formed in 2014 to focus “on developing and commercializing key intellectual property rights across natural resource related assets.”
The RMR website says the company “maintains relationships with key policy influencers to enable its projects to be current on all critical path permitting and sustain environmentally responsible operations.”
Those relationships worry opponents of the expansion. Namely, RMR’s chief executive is Chad Brownstein, son of Norm Brownstein, who serves as chairman of the Denver’s influential law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. The country’s new Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, is a Rifle native who served as a lobbyist for Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s oil and mining clients.
In his first week as secretary, the Interior Department opened an ethics investigations into Bernhardt. Three New York Times investigations suggest Bernhardt used his position as the Interior Department’s deputy secretary to advance a policy pushed by a former lobbying client.
This month the Washington Post reported that Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck harvested record revenues from clients hoping to influence Interior Department policy after Bernhardt left the firm in 2017 to join the Trump Administration as deputy secretary of the department.
The fear is that the Mid-Continent Quarry expansion plan could land on Bernhardt’s desk.
“I think that’s a valid concern,” said former Colorado state Rep. Gregg Rippy.
Rippy was born and raised in Glenwood Springs. He served as Colorado state representative from 2000-04 and owns a construction company that relies on a steady supply of aggregate.
“I have mixed feelings on this one,” Rippy said. “I’m in the aggregate business and I can say this is the wrong place for this project.”
Rippy shares the concerns of his fellow Glenwood Springs residents. The trucks, the trains, the scar, the potential injury to the town’s vibrant tourism business. He expects the BLM will opt for the more intensive Environmental Impact Statement review over the Environmental Assessment.
He wonders if the final decision on this expansion might wind up not in the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office but in Washington D.C. He, too, has concerns about RMR’s relationships in the highest halls of power.
But mostly, Rippy is curious about the business plan. If RMR plans to ship all its crushed stone more than 150 miles to the Front Range, beneath the Continental Divide, the company’s income dwindles, he said.
“The aggregate piece of it doesn’t make economic sense to me. When your transportation costs in all likelihood exceed the value of your product at the pit, it makes you wonder,” Rippy said. “This is not a mining company. This is not someone who is in the extractive industry. This has a lot of us scratching our heads wondering ‘There’s got to be something we don’t know here.’”
“We are not trying to be alarmist”
RMR’s financial statements show the acquisition of CalX’s quarry in Glenwood Springs more than doubled the company’s annual revenue — to more than $1 million — for the year ended March 31, 2018. But RMR is bleeding cash.
As of the end of March 2018, the company reported an accumulated loss of $27.4 million since its inception in 2014. The company’s 2018 year-end report noted that its independent auditors issued a statement “expressing substantial doubt as to our ability to continue as a going concern due to our limited liquidity and our lack of revenues.”
“We do not generate adequate cash flows to support our existing operations. Moreover, the historical and existing capital structure is not adequate to fund our planned growth. Our current cash requirements are significant due to our business plan which will depend on future acquisitions. We anticipate generating losses through 2018,” reads the statement, noting the company hopes to raise working capital to meet short-term obligations but has not secured that financing. “Our future is dependent upon our ability to obtain financing, a successful marketing and promotion program and, further in the future, achieving a profitable level of operations.”
RMR’s 20-year proposed plan for the quarry starts at the top and moves down the slope, which the company says will allow it to reclaim each bench as it moves down toward the quarry operations. The plan calls for year-round, 24-hour-a-day operations, but with mining activities only from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
At the behest of the citizen’s alliance, Garfield County conducted a three-month review of the quarry and found the operation was potentially in violation of several conditions of its county permit. The report found the quarry had grown beyond its county-approved acreage, was selling materials not allowed in its county permit, was crushing rock during the December 15-to-April 15 period when it was supposed to be dormant, and was not meeting its maintenance obligations on the lower Transfer Trail. The county’s commissioners will hold a public meeting on April 22 to address the alleged violations.
That’s about the same day the BLM will tell RMR whether its application for the expansion and operational changes is accepted. The BLM also found that the Mid-Continent Quarry had grown beyond its permitted boundary when the mine’s previous owners secured state approval to expand to 38 acres.
When RMR bought the quarry, “they inherited some existing non-compliance issues,” said BLM spokesman Dave Boyd, noting that the procedure to get the quarry into compliance is the same as the procedure to propose an expansion.
“When they started talking about possibly expanding the operation, we suggested they submit a single plan modification to address both the non-compliance and the expansion proposal, which is what we are currently reviewing for completeness,” said Boyd, noting that RMR had not increased any development beyond the previous owner’s footprint.
Peterson can barely carry all the binders. He plops them on a table in a coffee shop and starts flipping pages. He points to photos of what the scar of the fully developed quarry would look like from the high school. From the hot springs. From the Target parking lot.
“They are planning somewhere between 320 and 450 truck trips a day,” Peterson said. “We are not trying to be alarmist, but we are asking everyone to just stop and think through the impacts of mining 5 million tons a year in the middle of our community.”