This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Last week, a massive rock slide buried the Mid-Continent limestone quarry above Glenwood Springs. City residents who have spent several years fighting a proposed expansion at the mine say the collapsed mountainside is an opportunity to scrutinize the operation.
“The rock slide shines a light on the fact that this mine has operated out of compliance for years and this needs to be addressed,” says Jeff Peterson, who helped organize the Glenwood Springs Citizens’ Alliance several years ago as a new mine owner proposes expanding the quarry from about 20 acres to more than 320 acres.
Federal mine regulators issued a cease and desist to mine owner Rocky Mountain Industrials following the Jan. 18 rock slide that shed tons of rock and debris onto a shelf where the mine processes limestone and aggregate for construction. No one was injured in the slide, which measures about 200 feet across.
As federal and state mining regulators investigated the slide this week, the mine’s owners were in a Denver courtroom, arguing Garfield County does not have the authority to regulate the mine. The rock slide is the latest of several obstacles facing Rocky Mountain Industrials, a politically connected company that estimates it has lost $68.7 million in the past eight years as it creates an aggregate mining and distribution operation.
Rocky Mountain Industrials was Rocky Mountain Resources in 2014 when it acquired Online Yearbook, a company that marketed digital yearbooks for schools and companies. In 2016 it spent $2.8 million on the 20-acre Mid-Continent Quarry, which operated on 41 mining claims owned by the Bureau of Land Management and produced about 60,000 tons of limestone aggregate a year since the late 1980s, running about 20 trucks a day from the mine down to the resort town of Glenwood Springs.
Rocky Mountain Resources quickly asked the BLM to let it grow to about 320 acres so it could mine 5 million tons of limestone and dolomite a year for the next 20 years, which would send more than 400 trucks a day through the city.
The company bought a small rail yard in Glenwood Springs on the Colorado River, a few miles from the mine. It bought 620 acres of land outside Watkins east of Denver where it is developing a rail freight yard and industrial complex.
As Rocky Mountain Resources expanded, Glenwood Springs, Garfield County and residents galvanized to block the mine expansion. The BLM began studying the expansion proposal several years ago and a preliminary decision on the proposal was due in the spring of 2020.
In 2019 Garfield County investigated complaints by the citizens’ alliance and concluded the mine was operating outside the roughly 16-acre boundary allowed in the county’s special-use permit and issued a notice of violation. (The mine appears to have slowly creeped beyond its BLM, state and county permit boundary since it began operations in 1989, but that’s hazy because its permit with all three allows mining on three different footprints.)
The company sued Garfield County in federal and state court in 2019, saying the mine is regulated by both the federal and state government, not the county. In June 2021 a district judge largely ruled in the county’s favor and the mining company appealed that decision and presented its argument in the Colorado Court of Appeals in Denver this week.
Meanwhile, the Glenwood Springs Citizens’ Alliance has sued the BLM, saying the agency should not let the mine operate out of compliance while the expansion proposal drags on. In August last year the BLM agreed that the noncompliance issue was not working while the intensive review of the expansion plan plods onward and issued the company a notice of noncompliance, saying the company was mining “outside the scope of its approved plan of operations … causing unnecessary degradation, which are prohibited acts.”
Among the issues that troubled the BLM: the highwall mining above the processing plant where the rock slide occurred last week.
The company submitted a new operating plan for its mine to the BLM last fall. The agency said it was not complete. The company fixed the plan and gave it back to the BLM this month. The agency next month is supposed to determine whether the new operating plan has everything in order and is ready for agency review.
Then the mountain collapsed on the quarry.
“Everything has changed now. A hillside has come down,” Peterson said. “Everything that was approved in 1989 was already in noncompliance and now, certainly whatever operating plan they just submitted did not anticipate all this material and debris in the pit area.”
So the citizens’ alliance says operations should be suspended indefinitely while the company creates a new operating plan that includes the debris pile that clogs its quarry.
“In addition to the ongoing safety risk, due to the drastically-changed conditions at the site, the previous BLM and State approvals no longer apply in any event, as those plans and approvals did not contemplate operations under the new site conditions,” reads the letter from the group to BLM officials, the director of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety and the Denver-based district manager of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Executives from Rocky Mountain Industrials have never returned a phone call or email from The Colorado Sun. That hasn’t changed since the rock slide.
The company was co-founded by Chad Brownstein, the son of Norm Brownstein, who serves as chairman of Denver’s influential law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. When the mining company unveiled plans for expanding its new limestone operation above Glenwood Springs in 2018, the country’s Secretary of the Interior was David Bernhardt, who had most recently worked as a lobbyist for the politically connected law firm.
Chad Brownstein served as chief executive for the company but now is the non-executive chairman of the company’s board, a consulting position that pays $35,000 a month, according to recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The company recently formed Rocky Mountain Rail Park Metropolitan District to finance the development of the rail park outside Watkins and has raised $65.2 million in tax-exempt bonds to pay for the industrial project. In 2020 the company changed its name from RMR Industrials, Inc., to Rocky Mountain Industrials, Inc.
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Its latest financial reports filed with the SEC show the company generating $471,581 in revenue for the first six months of 2022 and losing $99,564. Since the company formed in 2014, it has reported an accumulated loss of $68.7 million.
The rock slide was mostly within the boundary of the mine permitted by the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. It is unclear if the mining company will need to amend its permit to allow mitigation work outside the state boundary.
“It is too early to definitively say what measures will be required until DRMS and BLM have all the geo-technical data and analysis,” Colorado Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris Arend said.
Rocky Mountain Industrials engineers are on the site with a BLM geologist, state mining regulators and officials with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which issued a cease-and-desist order for operations on the production bench and highway where the rockfall occurred, where most of the mining operations are conducted.
The BLM is reviewing information from the investigation as well as the operating plan the company submitted earlier this month and “is still assessing the situation to determine the next steps in regards to the recent rockfall,” BLM spokesman Eric Coulter said.