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Colorado’s North Fork Valley finds “baby-step” solutions to tackle its big problem with methane-leaking mines

Entrepreneur Chris Caskey is harvesting sediment from Paonia Reservoir for tile and pavers with plans to tap leaking coal mines for methane to power kilns

Entrepreneur Chris Caskey points out holes in the ice on Paonia Reservoir. He wants to mine clay-like silt from the impoundment and use it to to make bricks and tiles at a factory powered by coal-bed methane. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Chris Caskey points across the river to a thin thread of steam rising from a snow-caked cliff. 

“That’s methane,” he said of the emissions seeping from the long-shuttered Bear Mine. “Millions of cubic feet, every day. That’s the equivalent of tens of thousands of cars.”

Across the North Fork Valley in Gunnison County, nearly 20 dormant, gassy coal mines are leaking the potent greenhouse gas. Caskey, a chemist turned brickmaker, has a plan to use that methane and protect water for farms, hopefully while making a few bucks.

Here’s how the Caskey vision could unfold: Dig clay-like sediment from the silt-choked Paonia Reservoir that feeds farms in the valley. Pour the clay into hundreds of leaky portals above miles of dormant coal mine seams. Build a facility to harvest concentrated methane from select spots and convert it to electricity. Use the power to heat kilns to make bricks, pavers and tiles with reservoir sediment at his start-up, Delta Brick & Climate Co. And, maybe, offer public access to the North Fork of the Gunnison River near the methane-powered brick plant.

“To a fault I’m, like, how many solutions and wins can I stack up on top of each other to get as much support as possible?” he said while standing in a grassy pasture that once was a small coal mine on the banks of the river where he hopes to anchor his dream.

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

The North Fork Valley used to bustle with coal miners. Now, not so much. The valley is transitioning from decades in the coal business into an eclectic economy revolving around agriculture, tourism and recreation. As other regions in the West prepare to shift from reliance on single industries, like coal, the North Fork Valley is emerging as a model for that economic evolution. And Caskey’s innovative plan — he calls it “climate-action inspiration” — is an example of how entrepreneurs can lead the transition of Western economies. 

Caskey, 35, is quick to point out that what Delta Brick & Climate Co. is scooping from Paonia Reservoir is not nearly enough to eliminate the 50 feet of sediment that has clogged the impoundment that irrigates more than 15,000 acres in the North Fork Valley. And his hopes to capture methane for a brick plant will not come close to reducing the climate-altering impact of the valley’s leaky coal mines. 

Already, the Oxbow Mining Co. in 2012 partnered with energy companies to develop a $6 million, first-in-the-West facility that converts methane vented from the Elk Creek coal mine in Somerset into electricity that powers Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas, three hotels and 17 restaurants. And even that isn’t enough. 

Delta Brick & Climate Co. founder Chris Caskey inspects a methane capture power generation facility at the former site of the Elk Creek coal mine outside Somerset. The facility generates all the electricity used by Aspen Skiing Co. at its four resorts. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We need these kinds of power plants all over this valley,” Caskey, a former research assistant professor from Colorado School of Mines, said as he explained the process at the 3MW Coal Mine Methane Electricity Project above the shuttered mine. “This is a step in the right direction. It’s a partial solution. We need more of this.”

Caskey is talking with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ new Office of Just Transition, which is working on a plan to help communities around eight coal-fired electrical power plants and six mines adapt to closures. And now Colorado has two U.S. senators eager to support power generated by renewable, climate-friendly sources like wind, solar and methane capture. Maybe now is the time for ideas like Caskey’s to take hold, said Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck. 

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“You’ve got to have success stories around a just transition and these kinds of changes,” Houck said. “Someone needs to be first through the door. Gunnison County wants to figure out how we can support this kind of change. We are excited about ideas like Chris’. There are some opportunities, both economic and environmental, that can bring some people together who are typically on different sides of the conversation.”

A 2016 study of Colorado coal mine methane and the potential for electric generation identified 11 coal mines around Somerset — all abandoned from 1960 to 2003 and spanning nearly 6,000 acres — spewing 4.3 million cubic feet of methane a year into the atmosphere. A study by the Colorado Energy Office found that potentially 89 megawatts of electricity could be generated from methane leaking from the state’s active and abandoned coal mines. Of the 34 MW the office deemed feasible to generate from coal mine methane, 80% could come from mines around Somerset. That’s enough to power as many as 30,000 homes for a year — in addition to removing one of the world’s most potent greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. 

“If we want to get serious about addressing climate change, this is the place to start,” Caskey said. 

A chamber used to flare methane gas sits idle at a methane capture power generation facility at the former site of the Elk Creek coal mine outside Somerset. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Coal mines breathe. As pressures change outside, the mines suck air in through hundreds of little holes and exhale noxious gases like methane through those same holes. If Caskey can plug those holes with sediment scooped from the reservoir mixed with cement, the purity of a mine’s exhaled methane can increase. That can increase the efficiency of converting that methane into electricity.

Bureaucratic hurdles for methane capture

The wilderness-protecting Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act — or CORE Act — directs the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management to “develop a program to facilitate the sale and delivery of methane from active, inactive and abandoned coal mines” in several areas, including the North Fork Valley. Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper joined Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse this week in reintroducing the CORE Act, which stalled in recent years without bipartisan support among Colorado’s D.C. delegation.  

Capturing greenhouse gases for power generation requires delicate finagling of federal laws that can be in conflict when it comes to methane. Mine operators have to vent methane to protect miners down below. They also have to clean up mines when they leave. That remediation includes closing mine shafts to prevent access, but doesn’t necessarily detail the need for airtight closures to prevent gases from leaking. 

Caskey’s plan to better close mine portals needs federal permission to go above and beyond regular clean-up requirements. That kind of air-tight sealing work means fiddling with remediation projects where mine operators are waiting for the federal government to return their clean-it-up bonds so they can be cleared of liability. 

There’s technically not a legal process for doing that. There’s no BLM permit for injecting clay into leaky mines or doing additional work on top of a mine operator’s remediation. The process of converting methane to power is somewhat easy to conceive, but difficult to implement. 

In 2013 a state law approved coal mine methane capture under Colorado’s renewable energy program, which led an innovative company, Vessels Coal Gas, to develop a system to capture 280,000 cubic feet of methane a day bubbling up from the Oxbow coal mine in Somerset. That methane powers three engines that create 3 MW of electricity for Aspen Skiing Co.

Oxbow Mining began shutting down its Elk Creek Mine coal operations in 2012 and in the following years sealed the mine’s entrances with dirt and concrete. The company is required to maintain the property for 10 years before it can collect its reclamation bond held by Colorado’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. 

Caskey is careful not to criticize mine operators’ “good-enough” clean-up. And he’s not lobbing stones at the dated federal mitigation process that doesn’t necessarily account for modern-day methane capture. He knows he can’t just stroll in and start re-doing those portal seals, even if they are not as airtight as needed to improve the efficiency of methane capture and conversion to electricity.

Eric Edwards uses a methane detector to measure the amount of methane leaking from the former Elk Creek coal mine near Somerset. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Eric Edwards, who works for the mine’s methane power plant, straps a methane reader over his shoulder and waves a wand over a pipe sticking up from the ground. It was an electrical conduit that ferried power into the mine. The reader starts chirping. It’s only 140 parts-per-million, which is not much. 

“I was reading over 900 at a couple spots yesterday,” said Edwards, who keeps a log of leaks  to bolster the case for better remediation and power generation above dormant coal mines. Edwards and his family are former coal miners. He’s still helping to create energy. Only now he’s mining gas, not coal. 

“It is a different valley than what I grew up in,” he said.  

“Making the first step possible”

Back at his Montrose warehouse, Caskey picks up a fistful of Paonia Reservoir mud piled on a concrete slab. The fine sediment is mixed with imported sand and finely ground glass collected from Momentum Recycling in Broomfield.

Last year Caskey took a bag of Paonia Reservoir mud to the National Brick Research Center at Clemson University in South Carolina. Yes, there is a national brick braintrust.

“Those brick people, they grabbed it, rolled it in their hands, smelled it, tasted it,” Caskey said. “They liked it.”

Ceramic tile in various stages of production, made from Paonia Reservoir mud, sit at the Delta Brick & Climate Co. in Montrose. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Caskey is getting some help with his methane-mud-tile plan. He’s got some grants from the Department of Local Affairs and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

In the airy warehouse, Caskey and his two full-time workers mix mud, sand and glass dust in a giant extruder machine that sucks the air out of the clay and mashes the mix into tile or brick shapes. Then comes a several-day process of cutting, baking, glazing and heating in ovens that reach 2,000 degrees. 

Dozens of bricks are piled in a corner, each etched with temperatures, times and a percentage of glass powder, revealing the trial-and-error process required to find the right formula for sturdiness. A bloated brick shows how imperfect heating left too much organic material from the Paonia Reservoir. 

Bricks and pavers use a lot more mud, so they can have a bigger impact on the reservoir. Smaller tiles don’t need as much mud but they are pricier than pavers and pay the bills. Caskey says his operation is “very, very close” to breaking even in its first full year.

Ceramic tile made from Paonia Reservoir mud cool in a large kiln at the Delta Brick & Climate Co. in Montrose. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Steve Fletcher is the manager of the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Co. His 35-mile canal network ferries Paonia Reservoir water to nearly 500 farmers and ranchers in the North Fork Valley. 

He sees Caskey’s methane-baked mud plan as a “win-win” but more is required to protect the valley’s water.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket to the problem on both sides of this,” said Fletcher, who struggles to grasp the demand for bricks needed to really remove a half century of sediment from his reservoir.  “Maybe we can find other uses, like concrete barriers or ditch lining. Maybe we can make that drop into a bigger drop.”

Ceramic engineer Evan Barrett shows off ceramic tile in various stages of production, made from Paonia Reservoir mud, at the Delta Brick and Climate Co. in Montrose. (William Woody Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s about baby steps, said Caskey. He was studying ways to scrub carbon dioxide from the ambient air when he stumbled upon the idea for capturing methane. Maybe his “climate-action inspiration” will prod other innovators and entrepreneurs to take a step.

When it comes to removing greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere, Caskey calls the mines “the easiest, lowest-hanging fruit” that can be one step in an incremental approach to the problem. Projects like his could help stakeholders coalesce around solutions to the permitting and economic barriers that currently stand in the way, he said.

“We need large-scale, commodity-type action on capturing carbon,” Caskey said, “and what I’m doing is tiny — but at a higher price with the shiny glaze on tile. It’s making the first step possible.”

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