Our View: Xcel should preserve landscape

As Xcel Energy looks for a new way to get coal to the Hayden Power Station, we urge the utility company to put as much or more weight on preservation of the surrounding landscape as it does on cost efficiency.

In our view, building conveyers to haul coal across the Carpenter Ranch and U.S. Highway 40 is the most disruptive of six options the company is considering and should be eliminated.

Xcel obtains nearly all of the fuel for its coal-fired power station in Hayden from Seneca Coal Company to the south of the power station. The coal is trucked to the power plant on county roads specifically designated as coal mine routes.

Xcel wants to receive coal by rail by connecting the power station to the Union Pacific line that parallels U.S. 40 and the Yampa River. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, it isn't clear how much coal remains in the Seneca mine, but the amount is finite. Second, having access to coal by rail means Xcel can use competing suppliers, which will help ensure a fair price for coal.

Competitive pricing benefits not only Xcel, but also electricity consumers in the Yampa Valley. The less Xcel pays for coal, the less we pay for electricity.

Two separate options for connecting the power station to the rail line involve conveyors that would go under U.S. 40 and cross several privately owned ranches, including the Carpenter Ranch. Three other options involve building new rail spurs that would cross U.S. 40 and private land.

The final option would be to use the existing Hayden Gulch rail spur to bring the coal to a road east of the power station and either building a conveyor from there or trucking the coal.

The conveyors seem to be the most obtrusive options. Placing a conveyor on the Carpenter Ranch after so much has already gone into preserving that land and its agriculture character doesn't make sense. The conveyor, whether it starts at the Carpenter Ranch or at the other site, would be one of the first things visitors arriving at Yampa Valley Regional Airport would see.

The least costly of the new rail options is building the shortest line possible from a spot just east of the power station. That line would be a fraction of the length of the other lines being considered, but it would still cross U.S. 40 and private land. Rail lines are more costly than conveyors initially, but operating and maintaining rail lines may prove less expensive than conveyors in the long run, Xcel officials said.

On the surface, the most attractive option seems to be using the existing Hayden Gulch spur, a short line that starts just east of Hayden. The infrastructure -- a rail spur, coal road and loading facility -- is already in place and the effect on landowners would be minimal compared to the other options.

The biggest challenge would be securing the Hayden Gulch spur from Peabody Coal, owner of Seneca and the spur.

Xcel should be commended for putting these options before the community and taking public input, a step the company is not required to take. The company will conduct an analysis and present a plan this summer. Xcel will follow the county planning process, seeking permits perhaps as early as next fall.

Xcel's ability to secure a new coal supply route to the Hayden Power Station is important to the long-term stability of utility costs in the Yampa Valley. But achieving that stability doesn't have to mean disrupting the scenery and agricultural character of the landscape along U.S. 40. We urge Xcel to look closely at the option that utilizes existing infrastructure.

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