County to look at coal-haul permits

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The Routt County Planning Commission today will consider two special-use permits intended to ensure short- and long-term coal supplies for the Hayden Power Station.

The Station will lose its main coal source when the nearby Seneca Coal Co. closes this year.

Under its current contract, Peabody Energy, Seneca's parent company, would provide coal to the station, owned by Xcel Energy, through 2011.

The two companies are in the process of renegotiating a contract through 2007. That contract, however, is largely dependent on whether Peabody Energy receives a special-use permit to unload coal from trains at the Hayden Gulch Terminal southeast of Hayden.

"Depending how this project goes will determine how Peabody can or cannot get coal to the plant," said Michael Diehl, Xcel principal agent for land and siting rights.

The Hayden Gulch facility was constructed in 1980 to load local coal onto outgoing trains.

The special-use permit would allow the company to modify the facility to unload coal from railroad cars and stockpile it briefly before loading it onto trucks.

At least a portion of the coal likely would be delivered from Peabody's Twentymile Coal Company near Oak Creek.

Trains carrying coal would access the gulch loop from a spur off the Union Pacific mainline northeast of Hayden. The spur crosses U.S. Highway 40 and heads south about 1.3 miles to where it crosses Routt County Road 37 near the loop.

Coal would be trucked to the Hayden Power Station on an existing haul road, which shares a right-of-way with C.R. 37 for about 0.3 miles and also crosses Routt County roads 51 and 51B.

The Hayden Gulch Terminal also was among options Xcel explored for long-term coal delivery. However, the effects on private properties and roads made it unreasonable compared to other options, Diehl said.

If the county denies a special-use permit, Xcel may pursue another short-term solution: trucking coal from the Twentymile Mine on C.R. 27.

The county granted the permit for that use last year on the condition that Xcel improve the road. Those improvements would not be economical for the short term, so the company has prepared a new special-use application calling for smaller trucks and less improvements to the road, Diehl said.

"That's an option if the Hayden Gulch goes sour or takes too long," he said.

Xcel's long-term solution to coal delivery has drawn the most fire, mostly from landowners who will be affected by the plan.

The plan, called Option 2A, is among about 11 alternatives Xcel identified, most of which involve conveyor belts and/or railroad spurs on private properties. The company settled on the plan because it provided the best opportunities for mitigation, Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said.

Option 2A is a variation of Option 2, which would extend an existing spur just west of where U.S. 40 crosses the Yampa River. The spur would follow an existing right-of-way across a portion of The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch before crossing the highway.

Although some landowners and residents preferred Option 2, it had problems. First, Xcel estimated that coal delivery by rail would require one train, 60 to 70 cars long, traveling across the highway twice a day, five days a week -- causing traffic delays. The plan also would affect riparian areas along the river.

Option 2A would address those problems and also make it easier for trains traveling east and west, with a wye and spur about 200 yards west of the existing spur as well as a highway underpass.

The wye and spur would affect about 8 acres of irrigated meadows on the Carpenter Ranch, as well as about 150 feet of Tim Nelson's property. South of U.S. 40, the spur would cross about 40 acres of Rosamond Garcia's land.

Xcel has proposed mitigations measures, including compensation for diminished property value, but the three landowners remain opposed to the plan.

"We are opposed to the construction of a new rail line. ... It's hard to see how you can mitigate loss of historical integrity and loss of an open working ranch," said Ann Oliver, director of the Yampa River Project with The Nature Conservancy.

The plan will fragment wildlife habitat, agricultural operations and ranch heritage -- the basis of the ranch's educational goals, Oliver said.

The Planning Commission will face a balancing act when it reviews Xcel's special-use request. The county and the Yampa Valley Land Trust jointly hold conservation easements permanently protecting the ranch from development.

Typically, in considering a special-use permit, the commission focuses on whether the proposed use is appropriate for a certain site, said Chad Phillips, assistant director of the Routt County Planning Department.

In this case, however, the county's interest in the conservation easements, as well as its emphasis on agriculture in its comprehensive plan, warrants the question: Is this the best location for this use, he said.

"It's very rare the county has to ask (itself) that question," Phillips said.

As a public utility, Xcel can exercise the power of eminent domain, forcing the sale of land from an unwilling seller. That power, however, may be contingent on whether the company receives a special-use permit.

"It's county staff opinion that their powers are not above ours," Phillips said. "So basically, we could veto a condemnation on public property."

The Planning Commission may table the permit application, deny it or recommend the Board of County Commissioners' approval.

If a special-use permit for 2A is denied, Xcel likely will revisit Option 2, which also would require a special-use permit, Diehl said.

The town of Hayden is choosing to stay neutral on the Hayden Gulch and Xcel proposals until the Town Board has more information, Town Manager Russ Martin said.

"We've got to look at it a little more in depth," he said.

The Routt County Planning Commission will meet at 6 p.m. today in the Routt County Courthouse Annex, 136 Sixth St.


-- To reach Tamera Manzanares, call 871-4204 or e-mail tmanzanares@steamboatpilot.com

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