When mud meets methane: Innovation in the North Fork Valley

An inorganic chemist turned entrepreneur is helping to solve problems in Paonia

By Cayla Vidmar

What do you get when you combine a reservoir that’s being choked with sediment, and thousands of tons of unutilized methane gas, a greenhouse gas that’s 84 percent more potent than carbon dioxide?

The answer might surprise you, as many innovative solutions to two seemingly unrelated problems tend to do. Entrepreneur and chemistry Ph.D. Chris Caskey is attempting to tackle two unrelated issues, while creating jobs and a profitable business, the Delta Brick and Climate Company, just over Kebler Pass in Paonia.

Growing up in Flagstaff, Ariz., Caskey says he was “water paranoid” since he was a young boy, when he learned through a coffee table book that the Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean. In 2010, on a trip near the north end of Lake Powell, Caskey noticed expansive mud flats and decided to investigate further. He jumped down to what he thought was a dried surface of mud and sank well up to his knees in sediment.

This moment marked a mucky first-hand experience with sedimentation, a problem that any reservoir fed by natural channels will experience.

About a year later, Caskey was driving past Paonia Reservoir in the North Fork Valley at a time when the water was low, and was taken aback by the significant sedimentation problem in the reservoir. At the time, he was thinking about sustainable housing, and visions of straw-bale homes swirled in his head. He wondered if the sediment choking the Paonia Reservoir could be used to build straw-bale homes.

Fast track to 2017. Caskey was a research professor for the Colorado School of Mines, working on carbon dioxide capture and storage. He and his wife were looking to relocate, and had always loved the North Fork Valley. In an effort to get involved in the area, he volunteered for the Western Slope Conservation Center (WSCC) and was later nudged by the non-profit into a seat on the board. Before he knew it, he was part of the North Fork Coal Mine Methane Working Group (NFCMMWG) representing WSCC.

The working group had recently been formed with stakeholders from local governments, oil and gas companies and conservation groups like the WSCC. The group is a kaleidoscope of interests, many of which haven’t historically seen eye-to-eye, but served as an interesting mix for Caskey to jump into.

The North Fork Valley is no stranger to issues related to both water and coal mines and has been navigating the complexity of both. The valley is home to numerous organic farming operations, vineyards and orchards, many of which are down-river from coal mining operations, which have been the economic underpinning of the valley.

The West Elk Mine, currently the only operating coal mine in the area, has emitted 4,947,303 tons of methane into the atmosphere since 2011, according to an Environmental Protection Agency facility-level greenhouse gas emissions database.

Methane is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, but “There’s opportunity because it’s still a usable energy source,” says Caskey. When burned, or combusted, methane turns into the less potent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and can be used for heat, electricity, or simply burned to mitigate the emissions. 

Upriver from the West Elk Mine, the Paonia Reservoir provides irrigation water to approximately 15,300 acres of land in Paonia and Hotchkiss, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and is fed by the aptly named Muddy Creek. As its name suggests, the creek dumps sediment into the reservoir and has reduced the storage capacity of the reservoir by 2,550 acre-feet, and has about 150 more years before sediment fills it to capacity.

Caskey arrived at a juncture in 2018, between two seemingly unrelated issues—water and greenhouse gas emissions—that he was both passionate about and immersed in. It was luck that these two issues collided in a small town he and his wife had fallen in love with: Paonia. Caskey doesn’t remember when the idea to start a brick company using the sediment from the Paonia Reservoir and heat from coal mine methane occurred to him, but the vision evolved as his work with the NFCCMWG continued.

And so the Delta Brick and Climate Company was born.

The aim for Delta Brick and Climate Company is to “use as much gas as possible and as much mud as possible,” using the sediment from the Paonia Reservoir to make bricks and tile and coal mine methane to power the operation. He also hopes to mitigate excess methane to generate carbon credits, an additional revenue stream.

But an idea is just an idea until it has some proof of concept to back it up. So Caskey took his idea and was awarded a spot in the ICElab’s Accelerator Program at Western Colorado University, a 12-week program that pairs early-stage businesses with mentors, advisors and investors. He spent that time crunching numbers and spreadsheets, and “spoke with builders, architects and project managers to figure out if they care and who would actually buy this stuff, and it seems like there’s a reasonable business there,” he says.

Even with proof of concept and an innovative idea that works on two major issues, Caskey still has numerous hurdles to overcome. “I received a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to do a bunch of stakeholder work,” he says. “The reservoir is in a state park, it’s owned by the Bureau of Reclamation, it’s operated by a private company, and any time you mess with a federal waterway, you have to talk to the Army Corps of Engineers.”

And that’s just one piece of Caskey’s puzzle related to the sediment he hopes to use in his bricks.

On the coal mine methane side of his business, Caskey is up against unknown leasing mechanisms for the methane, which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will be managing. “We need a leasing mechanism to get the gas,” says Caskey, speaking to the complexity of methane as a resource. The NFCMMWG is currently working with the BLM to develop a mechanism for leasing so projects like Chris’ can move forward.

While Caskey is working through logistical red tape, he’s also developing his product, taking five-gallon buckets out to a mud flat in the reservoir and digging through snow to collect mud while the water is at its lowest point. He’s firing bricks, tiles, and other odds and ends in a pottery kiln, perfecting his blend of mud and sand. He hopes to collect enough mud this winter to fulfill a small amount of orders, until the reservoir is low again in August.

“I think I’m going to get all the permits and we’ll be able to operate a real excavator or dredge this summer,” says Caskey. “We should have a pilot factory going this summer, and I’ve been talking to the [West Elk Mine] about renting one of their old warehouses.”

Due to infrastructure costs of piping methane to his factory, Caskey says he’ll likely have to use propane to run the pilot factory to start. He says, “If you want a pipeline from a mine for methane, you’re looking at $100,000 minimum, probably more like $300,000,” an expense he’s hoping to avoid until he’s secured all of his permits and some investors.

Caskey isn’t trying to fool anyone that his brick company will solve the methane and sedimentation issue for the North Fork Valley, saying, “We will only solve a small fraction of the two problems.” But his goal is to create decent jobs in a valley whose economic bedrock—coal mining—is dropping out.

“The coal mines were good employers, but have had layoffs. Land prices are going up and it’s hard to make a living farming … The question I ask is: If you work in town, can you live in town? If the answer is no, there is something unhealthy there,” Caskey says.

He also discussed the opportunity to duplicate his business model in other places with these two issues, but notes the unique opportunity the North Fork Valley offers. “You have a heat source relatively close to the reservoir, so that cuts down costs significantly,” he says, noting the proximity of resources might not be an opportunity in other locations.

Regardless of being able to replicate his business idea, the project shows a collaborative, place-based idea that will be one part of the solution as we tackle the climate challenge, and as the North Fork Valley transitions from coal mining to other economic opportunities.

For more information on the Delta Brick and Climate Company, visit DeltaBrickandClimate.com.

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