Colorado woodpile larger than a city block is a fire hazard, lawsuit says

Outside Dolores, in southwest Colorado, sits a giant woodpile that locals refer to as Sawdust Mountain or Fire Mountain or other choice words that might offend sensitive ears.

The pile of logs, wood chips and sawdust — known as a slash pile — left behind by a shuttered mill is larger than an average Denver city block, and neighbors say it’s a danger and an eyesore.

“Sawdust Mountain, that’s what we call it,” said Lana Kelly, who owns the Circle C RV Park and Campground and can see the woodpile from her property.

Now, Colorado’s attorney general, the state Department of Public Health and Environment and the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners are suing the company that created the woodpile, saying it’s a fire hazard.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Montezuma County District Court, names Ironwood Group, Mark A. Hartman, the company’s majority shareholder, and Kenneth Wade Bentley, the on-site manager, as defendants. Efforts to reach company representatives Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The state and local agencies want a district court judge to enforce a consent order signed July 29 between Ironwood Group and the state health department’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division that directed the company to clean up the pile. The state also wants a judge to impose a $10,000-per-day fine until Ironwood complies with the consent order.

The state says the pile is a “public nuisance” and wants the company to separate it into smaller piles with barriers between them and eventually remove the waste altogether, according to the lawsuit.

The woodpile is estimated to be 507 feet long and 360 feet wide, according to the lawsuit. For reference, a football field is 360 feet long and 160 feet wide. And the average Denver city block is 266 feet by 400 feet, according to Confluence Denver, a website devoted to the city’s design and development

At its peak, the woodpile is as high as 61 feet tall — about the height of an average four-story building — and 25 feet on its southern end, the lawsuit states.

“It’s bad,” said John Godbout, the Circle C general manager. “Any expert we’ve ever talked to in the course of this has never seen one this big.”

Ironwood Group bought the mill in 2019 and began operations to make wood veneer in the spring of 2020, the lawsuit states. But the company laid off the majority of its workforce and ceased operations in October 2021.

The company never received the proper certification for solid waste disposal from Montezuma County, nor did it have an engineering design and operations plan to receive an exemption for the certification.

The company never took steps to reduce the size of its woodpile or dispose of it, and the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners revoked the company’s operating permit, according to the lawsuit.

Godbout and Kelly said the woodpile is ugly, but they are most concerned about the fire hazard. Campers can see it looming above the trees that stand between the Circle C property and the Ironwood plant, they said. Their tent campsites are about 400 feet from Ironwood’s property line, and campers would be in danger if the pile caught fire.

Earlier this year, Circle C had to change insurance carriers because its previous company declined to underwrite the campground because of the fire danger from the woodpile, Godbout said.

Woodpiles can spontaneously combust as the material decomposes and generates heat. If it caught fire, a slash pile that large could take days to extinguish, and with drought conditions high in Montezuma County, it easily could spread. About eight homes, plus the campground, are along Road T, where the plant is located, Godbout said.

In December 2020, a pile of aspen cuttings stacked behind another Dolores wood mill caught fire, and it took multiple fire departments about three days to put it out, according to a report in the Durango Herald. No buildings were destroyed.

In the July consent order, the state’s hazardous materials division asked Ironwood to check and record temperatures in the pile on a specified schedule, submit regular reports on clean-up progress, create a 90-foot barrier around the pile and divide the pile into halves with 30 feet of spacing between them, the lawsuit said.

The company missed an Aug. 15 deadline to file a progress report, and inspectors determined on Aug. 24 that no work toward dividing the pile had been started. County and state inspectors visited the site two more times without seeing progress, the lawsuit said.

Kelly and Godbout said they were pleased the state is taking action.

“It’s been a long stressful battle,” Kelly said. “We feel like we’ve all been heard.”


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