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Cemex’s Cement Plant on June 13, 2022, near Lyons. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Opponents of extending the life of the Cemex mine and cement kiln near Lyons claimed a win for neighbors and climate change late Wednesday, as the Boulder County Planning Commission delayed a proposed 15-year extension for the operation and signaled they may reject it.

The Cemex county-issued mining permit at Dowe Flats, north of State Highway 66, runs out in September. A separate state air pollution permit for the cement kiln, where the mine’s rock is delivered by a conveyor belt over the highway, runs indefinitely.

The international cement giant has offered to shut down the kiln and its 357,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year in 2037, and give Boulder County hundreds of acres of open space, if the 15-year permit extension is approved. 

The planning commission staff negotiated the proposed deal and recommended it to the board, alongside  the county’s open space department. But dozens of county residents concerned about climate change joined neighbors tired of dust, ash and noise to rally against the mining permit. The town of Lyons also formally protested the deal, said it had been excluded from the talks, and suggested a five-year mine approval at most. 

Late Wednesday night, after hours of testimony, the planning commissioners said the cement smokestacks are a 1990s anachronism for Boulder County and asked for more staff review and a new company proposal Sept. 1. 

“I haven’t seen or heard an explanation of why we need 15 more years,” planning Commissioner Gavin McMillan said. “I have trouble seeing how this application meets the criteria for approval.” 

this is the correct version updated by BoCo June 2022
A proposed agreement between Boulder County and Cemex would allow the mining and cement company to continue operations through 2037, in exchange for Cemex giving Boulder valuable open space. (Boulder County Parks and Open Space handout)

“I’m particularly concerned about the health and welfare of the citizens of Boulder County in regard to the operation of this mine,” Commissioner Ann Goldfarb said.  “So I’m inclined to vote against it, I guess, regardless of further information.” 

Even if the planning commission ends up recommending a mining extension, the permit would need approval by the Boulder County Commission later this year. 

Cemex officials in the remote video meeting defended the request for an extension, saying they provide good jobs for the county through both the mining operation and the cement kiln. The kiln is one of only a small handful operating throughout Colorado, and has provided materials for countless Front Range building and road projects. Cemex says it is offering hundreds of open space acres in free and reduced-price parcels, in an area that could connect valuable existing open space properties.

Cemex officials also claim they can continue to operate the controversial kiln even if the mine has to close, by trucking in cement-making materials from a longer distance, though opponents have disputed the economics of those contentions. 

Opponents dominated the Wednesday hearing, detailing local impacts on neighborhood health and questioning how Cemex’s massive carbon dioxide emissions fit with official Boulder County greenhouse gas reduction goals. The cement kiln is the largest single source of emissions in the county, and one of the largest in Colorado.

Neighbor and Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Hunter Lovins, along with others, urged the planning commission to call the cement company’s bluff about continuing the kiln even if the mining permit is denied. The commission has the chance to shut down its largest carbon dioxide source, Lovins said, and the offer of trading open space is “a bribe.” 

“Do not bow to the interests of this corporation for more open space,” said another public commenter, Julie Boyle.

Another resident of the area was among those pointing to the last time the mining permit came up for renewal in the 1990s. The owners told Boulder County they needed 25 years of operations, and then the mine would be exhausted and close in 2022. 

Fifteen years from now, he said, “They’re gonna ask for more. Don’t you realize this? They’re a corporation. They don’t care about us. You’re supposed to protect me.” 

“The only decision that needs to be made is whether or not we value the health of our children, our neighbors and the wildlife around us, the quality of the air we breathe, the food that our local farms grow and the water we drink more than the profits of Cemex,” said Wylie Hobbs, who sees the mining operation from his porch.

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: @MBoothDenver