Local coal shortage strikes hard at area residents, Navajo Nation
A coal shortage at a mine in Southwest Colorado has left some people who rely on the fuel to heat their homes scrambling this winter.
“It’s just a bad situation for everyone involved,” Dan Huntington, owner and operator of Hay Gulch Coal Sales, said. “And we just don’t know when we’ll open next.”
For decades, people have traveled to rural western La Plata County, about 20 miles southwest of Durango, to buy coal from the King I & II mine on County Road 120, also known as Hay Gulch Road.
About 15 years ago, the company that owns the mine – GCC Energy – contracted with Hay Gulch Coal to sell coal for domestic use at a location just down the road to eliminate conflicts with mine operations.
Ever since, Hay Gulch Coal has remained one of the most reliable providers of domestic coal in the region as other operations shut down. It’s estimated that the outfit serves thousands of customers from all over the Four Corners.
This fall, however, GCC Energy started to dig into a new area of the mine and ran into a seam with bad coal. As a result, the mine operator has been unable to provide Hay Gulch Coal with its regular allotment for domestic sales.
For people who still rely on coal to heat their homes, especially in rural areas with no infrastructure or utilities, it’s turned into a bad situation as winter turns frigid. Nowhere is this felt more acutely than the Navajo Nation.
“We live in a geographically disadvantaged area,” Nicole Horseherder, executive director of the Black Mesa-based nonprofit Tó Nizhóní Ání, said. “So we have to rely on what we have, and what we have is coal.”
A waning legacy
Despite the mines surrounding Silverton getting all the historical attention, Durango was a bustling hub for many active coal mines in the early days of the town’s founding.
“We were a coal-mining town,” local historian and Fort Lewis College professor emeritus Duane Smith told me in 2018. “That’s what people don’t realize.”
While a number of small coal mine operations sprouted up in and around Durango, by the mid-1900s, the largest operation was the King I mine, which at the time was owned by a local family and remained active into the 2000s.
In 2007, however, GCC Energy, a Mexico-based cement producer, purchased King I and expanded into an adjacent area now known as King II. As a result, operations nearly quadrupled to nearly 1 million tons of coal extracted a year.
But in recent years, production has waned, prompting GCC Energy to ask for an expansion into 2,462 acres underground. After much controversy, the request was approved in 2019, opening up 12 million tons of coal that’s expected to keep the mine in operation for another 20 years.
It’s in that area, however, where GCC Energy has run into its current dilemma.
Third in line
In September, GCC Energy first started digging into the new reserves. Chris Dorenkamp, mine manager, told The Durango Telegraph that operations ran into an intrusion within a coal seam that has impacted the production of quality coal.
For us non-miners: coal was formed 300 million years ago when the Earth was covered in huge swampy forests. Over time, geological forces submerged and pressurized the organic matter into a carbon-dense black sediment – coal.
Geological processes are not always so cut and dry, however. In the current case of King II, it appears that an ancient river washed through the coal deposit, leaving rock and muddy sediment in the seam, which is complicating mining activities.
“Geology is an inexact science,” Dorenkamp said. “We knew this was going to be an issue going into the new reserve. Now we’re working our way through it.”
As a result, production has been impacted. According to state data, GCC Energy extracted an estimated 472,000 tons of coal in 2022, with a noticeable decline starting in September. (In recent years, GCC Energy has averaged 600,000-700,000 tons a year.)
GCC Energy’s first obligation is to provide coal to heat its cement production plants. Next in line is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. And then, with leftover lump coal, is Hay Gulch Coal for domestic use.
“They all probably need more than we can deliver,” Dorenkamp said. “I’m sure of that.”
The shortage has all but shut down Hay Gulch Coal in recent weeks, Huntington said.
Normally, Hay Gulch Coal opens in September and sells around 4,500 tons of coal a winter. This year, however, the small outfit has only been open a few select days whenever GCC Energy has coal to spare. This season, just 2,000 tons have been sold.
In an attempt to serve the most customers possible, Hay Gulch Coal has limited sales to just 1 ton per vehicle. The last day the lot was open – Jan. 15 – nearly 150 vehicles lined the road, with most people waiting a few hours for a truckload.
“We just haven’t been able to get very much coal,” Huntington said. “It took about four weeks for us to get 200 tons, and we sell that much in one day.”
A coal resurgence
Burning coal to heat homes used to be the norm but has since dropped off in favor of other forms of energy. In 1950, for instance, 114.58 million tons of coal were used for domestic purposes. In 2021, however, just 0.81 million tons were burned, according to federal data, with just 130,000 households in the United States still reliant on coal.
But using coal to heat homes seems to be making a bit of a comeback, Huntington said. As the price of natural gas, propane and even wood pellets continues to rise, he’s seeing new customers every time he’s open.
Environmental concerns aside, coal is extremely efficient for heating homes – only a few lumps can heat a home for an entire night. On top of that, it’s extremely affordable compared to other fuel sources.
Longtime Durango local Linda Mannix and her husband, Jeff (full disclosure, a Telegraph contributor), have used coal to heat their ranch south of Durango for 30 years. Mannix said it costs about $300 in coal to heat her home for the entire winter. For some people using propane or natural gas, that’s a monthly bill.
“I just turn the propane off now because it’s gotten so expensive,” she said.
Indeed, there are many reasons why people still use coal, whether it’s the cost, or the fact they just don’t have any other options. And with Hay Gulch Coal one of the only coal sale operators left, people travel from all over – Paige, Flagstaff and Phoenix. But the majority, by far, are from the Navajo Nation.
No other option
At 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the country’s largest reservation, home to about 177,000 tribal members. Yet poverty and a lack of infrastructure have caused a reliance on coal, as well as wood, to heat homes.
According to federal data, 38% of homes on the Navajo Nation are without electricity, compared to the nationwide average of 1.4% (and, it should be noted, the Navajo Nation accounts for 75% of the homes in the national average).
For many on the Navajo Nation, there’s just no other option than to burn coal or wood.
“There are no gas lines that run here,” Horseherder said. “Every winter we have to figure out how to get our fuel source, but it’s challenging, so we have to rely on what we have. And what we have is coal and wood.”
With Hay Gulch’s shortages, it’s unclear where else people can get coal. Peabody Energy’s Black Mesa coal mines have closed. The Navajo Mine in San Juan County distributes a limited amount each year but it’s considered low quality.
Horseherder said Native people have had a long and tumultuous history with mining corporations coming onto the reservation, extracting resources and leaving communities in the lurch. She said some on the Navajo Nation are pushing to reopen a portion of Peabody’s mines to allow for limited domestic use.
“Our people have been using coal for heat for generations,” Horseherder said. “And it’s two very different things – we’re not talking about shoveling tons and tons of coal in a huge incinerator and burning it 24/7, 365 days a year. We’re talking about serving a basic need – heating your home to survive freezing temperatures.”
Hope on the horizon
Fortunately, for those who rely on coal, the situation may soon improve. Dorenkamp said GCC Energy is slowly but surely working its way out of the trouble area. He said it’s possible production could ramp back up as early as the spring.
“It’s not a long-term issue,” he said. “It’s just taking a little while to get into the new reserves.”
But that’s of little relief to people who need coal now, especially with temperatures in recent weeks taking a dive.
Chris Wilson, a member of the Navajo Nation who lives in northern Arizona, said he drives several hours to Hay Gulch Coal. While he has back-up energy sources, he’s aware many family and friends don’t.
“Even I’m about to go out and will be looking for some,” Wilson said. “It’s just an all-around great source of providing heat in the home.”
Huntington hopes Hay Gulch Coal will be able to help.
“I think we’re getting closer every day,” he said.