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

The Boulder County Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday against a proposal from Cemex and Open Space staff to extend a mining permit and cement plant near Lyons for 15 years in exchange for nearly 2,000 acres of park land. 

It’s unclear how much the official 6-0 thumbs down from planners will weigh with the full Boulder County Commission, which has the final say on the deal. But neighbors and antipollution advocates who have commented against the bargain by the hundreds called it a big win as they prepare for another fight in two weeks. 

“This decision will prove to be on the right side of history,” said Sarah Lorang, a neighbor to the mining and cement complex that straddles Colorado 66 just east of Lyons. “We now look to the Boulder County commissioners to affirm this decision on September 14th, and we ask people to learn more about this.” 

The planning commission rejected a complex agreement worked out between Cemex and Boulder County Parks and Open Space. The Cemex mining permit for cement-making materials expires this fall; the cement-making plant on the south side of the highway, attached by a conveyor belt, can operate indefinitely under state air pollution permitting. The plant, one of the larger polluters in the state, pumps out more than 350,000 tons of carbon dioxide in an average year. 

Cemex offered to give up the cement plant in 2037 if the county issued a 15-year mining permit for the same period. Cemex also offered to give hundreds of acres of open space to the county for free, and more acres at a sharply reduced price. 

Cemex said again during Thursday’s special hearing that it will continue to operate the much-criticized cement plant even if it doesn’t get a mining extension, by trucking in more materials from long distance.

Opponents want county officials to call Cemex’s bluff, arguing the company is likely to close the plant without the next-door materials. They also claim trucking in large amounts of outside materials would require revisions to Cemex’s other state and local permits, giving county officials another chance to seek concessions.

Planning commissioners agonized over the proposal, with many hoping for shorter terms from Cemex in a renewed round of negotiations. Fifteen years is too long, they said, for both neighbors suffering from dust and pollutants, and for Boulder County’s ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the climate change battle. 

“If it was seven years, 2030 is a big date for our climate goals,” Commissioner Gavin McMillan said. “There’s a rational nexis to that. I could get there if that was the proposal in front of us.”

Other commissioners worried, though, that they were rejecting the best deal the county was going to get from international giant Cemex. 

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)

Commissioner Lieschen Gargano called the deal, as flawed as it seems, “a bird in the hand. We don’t like it, but we have a date when it would be over.” Instead, those commissioners warned, Cemex can pollute through the cement plant indefinitely, and may sharply increase pollution, noise and safety issues from incoming loads.

But commissioners also pointed out that part of their official charge is to make land uses compatible with neighborhoods over long stretches of time. 

The mine and cement complex might have fit with Boulder County’s past, Commissioner Ann Goldfarb said, but if someone proposed it from scratch now, “I don’t think we’d think twice about whether this is OK. It’s not. And I just can’t get past that.”

Though their only vote was to recommend against the deal, the planning commissioners forwarded their decision to the county commissioners with language asking them to seek more public health information about the impacts of mining, carbon dioxide and potential truck traffic. They also asked that if the deal is renegotiated, staff focus on shorter terms. 

“We feel there’s an unknown tradeoff,” the commissioners’ proposed language said. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...