On the southeastern slopes of Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs a small creek lined by wildflowers flows through the countryside next to a rough road that provides access to what a handful of residents call home. Little Turkey Creek Canyon is a setting with large meadows next to the south bank of the stream and steep granite cliffs to the north.
For homeowners just west of the Hitch Rack Ranch property, and more than 50 residences in a neighborhood downstream to the east, the quiet spot just a few miles from the busy U.S. Highway 115 is a microcosm of the reasons many people move to Colorado.
But for a local company, the canyon represents an opportunity. Officials with Transit Mix Concrete see the land as a chance to speed up closure of the Pikeview Quarry that many people call an eyesore in the mountains northwest of Colorado Springs.
Residents who don't want their sanctuary disturbed have butted heads with the company since it applied in February to put a quarry on almost 400 acres of the Hitch Rack property.
"As areas around Colorado Springs develop more and more, it gets harder to find peaceful sanctuary, and everything we appreciate about Colorado is compressed into our neighborhood," said Warren Dean, who lives adjacent to the Hitch Rack Ranch and is a member of a local citizens committee. "We have longtime neighbors, mountains, views, year-round and migratory wildlife. We love living here."
Transit Mix officials say they can mine up to 1.5 million tons of granite from the quarry they say will be somewhat hidden behind the terrain.
"Like most residents, people don't want a quarry in their backyard," said Jerry Schnabel, president of Transit Mix. "But we are willing to listen to them. And they have some valid concerns."
Concerned citizens, scientists, real estate agents, a fire chief and others who live and work along Highway 115 say "we're not anti-quarry," but they don't want it there.
Added Chief Hart Wright of the Southwest Highway 115 Volunteer Fire Department, "This is simply just the wrong place for one."
A citizens committee formed in April has sent more than 100 letters to the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. The group worries about closures to the access road once miners begin blasting, possible effects on groundwater flow from quarry operations, noise, dust, hampered views, danger to the ecosystem, heavy truck traffic and public safety issues in the event of wildfire or other emergencies.
"It's outrageous to even think that it would even be considered," said Realtor and local resident Kristan Rigdon. "When you drop a mine in between existing neighborhoods, those effects are immediate."
Schnabel said Transit Mix has been looking for a suitable site to replace the Pikeview facility since 2008. The concrete company searched south to New Mexico and, Schnabel said, the Hitch Rack property is the best choice because it meets state requirements that it be mostly hidden from view. It also has the ideal quality and quantity of granite and proximity to the city.
Safety and access
Deborah Hileman, a spokeswoman for Transit Mix, confirmed what the residents told The Gazette during a tour of the proposed quarry site on July 22: that Little Turkey Creek Road through the proposed quarry will be shut down whenever blasting is underway. During Phase 1, the quarry will strip the cliffs north of the road and set up storage areas and a processing plant in the meadows to the south.
"Certainly, for safety's sake (the road will close), but typically for 30 minutes or less when blasting takes place," Hileman said." There are just a handful of full-time residents up there. We believe that it is not an undue burden."
Wright worries the closures will add to safety concerns because his fire department and other first responders will be cut off from the residents.
The citizens committee also fears that blasting operations could go awry, forcing longer closures.
Hileman said that "very, very seldom does a blast not go off as planned. They would keep the quarry closed until the blast professionals can get up there and find out why it didn't happen, and then correct it."
Wright also worries around the risk of wildfire in the densely forested area. The steep slopes of the canyons and the thick vegetation make the conditions "as bad or worse than Waldo (Canyon)," where a June 2012 wildfire burned more than 18,000 acres, killed two people and destroyed 347 homes.
Wright said his department is not equipped to stop such a fire, especially if crews can't get to the area quickly.
Another concern for those living near the quarry site is groundwater. The residents get their water from wells tapped into the fractured granite because there is not an accessible aquifer in the area.
Quarry blasting could disrupt faults near the site, change the flow of water and potentially cut off some of the wells, the citizens committee says, and it plans to employ a team of geologists and hydrologists to study possible effects. Dean said that as of last week, $35,000 has been raised for research and legal services, mostly in small donations by dozens of nearby residents and a few larger contributions.
Bob Stabo, Transit Mix's project manager, said the company plans to "isolate the quarry" from possible water supply changes and groundwater contamination. Stabo, Hileman and Schnabel shared large 3-D models with The Gazette on Thursday, pointing out that they believe the quarry floor will sit below Little Turkey Creek's banks but high enough to keep the groundwater safe and flowing.
Jerry Moore, a retired geologist who is a consultant for the citizens committee, said the nature of the fractured ground makes it impossible to determine where the water will go. He argues that any predictions that Transit Mix engineers, geologists or hydrologists make are unfounded. And Moore says that the removal of more than 1 million tons of granite simply can't be done "without dramatically affecting groundwater.
"I can't tell you whether those faults and fractures are going to allow the quantity to increase or decrease. We don't know what it's going to do. There's no way anyone can tell you whether these faults are going to be conduits or barriers."
Moore, the other residents, District 3 County Commissioner Sallie Clark and about 100 others attended a public information meeting June 30 held by the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety in downtown Colorado Springs.
At the meeting, DRMS officials explained that if a well were contaminated or cut off, the residents would have to file a complaint and prove in court that Transit Mix is liable.
According to Moore, that would be impossible.
"I don't see why citizens have to bear that risk," he said. "You spend everything you have at the courthouse, but no one will be able to prove whether it is Transit Mix that disrupts the wells or not."
Adding to public safety and access concerns are increased traffic and truck noise on Highway 115, and possible detriment to the ecosystem.
Valerie Sword with the Colorado Department of Transportation said DRMS signs off on the project and CDOT follows suit, Transit Mix will be required to pay for and install turn lanes in both directions on Highway 115 to accommodate heavy truck traffic.
When the quarry is in full production, Hileman said, trucks will make 275 round trips, six days a week between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Rob Gilbert, who rents an apartment on Allegheny Drive near the Pikeview Quarry, said trucks rumbling past his home about a half mile from the quarry entrance are the biggest noisemakers associated with the facility. "If I owned a nice house like some of these on the hill, I'd be pissed," he said, pointing to homes adjacent to the Pikeview Quarry.
As for the environmental concerns near the proposed quarry, The Nature Conservancy of Colorado sent a letter of concern to the DRMS in April and followed that with a science evaluation of its nearby Aiken Canyon Conservation Area in mid-July. The Conservancy said the proposed quarry site is "critical habitat" of the Mexican spotted owl, which is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species. The organization also fears loss of species and habitat from removal of vegetation and topsoil, impacts of dust to plants, insects and small species, and disruption of migrating wildlife populations that use Little Turkey Creek Canyon.
"It is therefore The Nature Conservancy's conclusion that a quarry should not be developed in the proposed location," the science evaluation said.
Schnabel said the project will be done in several phases, mining about 50 acres at a time, with environmental reclamation conducted after each phase.
The Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety has until early November deadline to rule on a permit. Hileman said DRMS has suggested a public hearing will take place in early September, although no hearing has been scheduled.
If DRMS approves a permit, CDOT still must review the plan and, if it approves, Transit Mix would then conduct design work and the El Paso County Board of Commissioners will have to give final land-use permission before construction could begin.
Clark said the board is still gathering information about the Hitch Rack project. She wants to meet with Transit Mix and the citizens committee and tour the site before she forms an opinion, although she did say she is concerned that closing the Pikeview Quarry and opening the new one along Highway 115 could simply be "sacrificing one neighborhood for another."
"There are obviously a lot of questions to be asked and a lot of questions to be answered," she said. "There still needs to be a lot of due diligence in this matter."