Community rolls along on railroad

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— Three years after Xcel Energy officials started trying to find ways to transport coal from the railroad to the Hayden Station power plant, there still seems to be no ideal solution.

The best alternative for moving the coal is uncertain, but some residents are happy to see Xcel and Peabody Coal talking about the future of coal transportation. One thing is clear: Using trucks is not the answer.

At a public meeting at the Routt County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall in Hayden on Monday night, about 100 people responded to Xcel's alternatives for a rail spur. Xcel operates and partially owns the plant.

An executive with Peabody Coal traveled from St. Louis to attend the meeting. Xcel purchases 900,000 tons of coal each year for the station from Peabody.

"It's about long-term rail and how that affects the whole valley," Hayden Town Manager Russ Martin said at the meeting.

Local officials have been urging the companies to cooperate in long-term planning.

"They do have some information out there, and they were a little more forthcoming," Routt County planner Chad Phillips said. "I think Peabody is stepping up more. It has their attention."

Currently, all the alternatives Xcel is proposing have flaws, company officials said. The meeting allowed Xcel to collect input from the public about which flaws they thought were most concerning. Officials from several state and federal agencies were also at the meeting to talk about effects on the environment and traffic flow along U.S. Highway 40. All the proposals call for putting the rail under the highway.

Xcel can use eminent domain to acquire property. Two of its proposed alternatives directly affect landowners.

"To me, these are ludicrous," landowner Gary Williams said. "You're greatly impacting some families that have been here almost as long as coal has been here."

A show of hands made it clear that most people agreed.

Another option includes purchasing the rights to use a line owned by Peabody, which might someday be used by Peabody to transport coal from the south. Extending that rail to the station is too expensive, said Michael Diehl, principal agent for siting and land rights with Xcel. Instead, coal would have to be trucked part of the distance.

"We can't just go out and spend whatever it takes to make it happen," Diehl said.

Some people said the county should revisit the option that calls for putting the rail through a conservation easement that is partially owned by the county. The county has rejected that proposal.

Another option calls for building a bridge over the Yampa River. Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers are nervous about the environmental impacts of this.

Diehl said Xcel plans to present two or three options to the county for approval by July.

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