In October, NTEC bought three mines, two in Wyoming and one in Montana, from Cloud Peak Energy. Pictured: Antelope Mine in Wyoming (Photo by Kimon Berlin, via Flickr/CreativeCommons)
The Navajo Nation’s Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC) is making progress with its mining operations in Wyoming.
In October, NTEC bought three mines, two in Wyoming and one in Montana, from Cloud Peak Energy after that company declared bankruptcy. Soon afterward, Montana shuttered the Spring Creek mine, when the Montana Department of Environmental Quality denied NTEC a permit over sovereignty concerns. NTEC was founded as a Tribal entity, and as such is able to invoke sovereign immunity, which could allow it to avoid liability and even reject state laws.
Wyoming officials voiced the same concerns, so a compromise has been reached, with NTEC signing a limited waiver of its sovereign immunity rights. Under the waiver, NTEC is obligated to follow state mining and environmental laws, and to pay fines if and when applicable.
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon sent a letter to NTEC’s CEO declaring that he was “satisfied” with the partial waiver, which, he said, “demonstrates NTEC’s serious and long-term commitment to the State of Wyoming.”
Experts in environmental law point out that the waiver is extremely limited, in that it only applies to Wyoming state laws. The waiver does not address complaints that may be brought by third parties or compliance with federal laws, which are more extensive.
“Because the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior were not at the table, citizens can’t enforce the most significant environmental laws,” said Cornell Law Professor Joshua Maceyl. “The waiver encompasses citizen suits only brought under state environmental law, not federal environmental laws.”
NTEC has not obtained the permits from Cloud Peak energy. “This agreement now clears a pathway for NTEC to take the necessary steps to apply for the transfer of permits to mine at the Antelope, Cordero Rojo and Young’s Creek coal mines,” Gordon added.
In a related story, NTEC has set up a payment plan with the state of Wyoming to pay more than $90 million in back taxes that were owed by Cloud Peak Energy. The company will pay $12 million in installments through the end of 2020, and will pay off the full amount by the end of 2026.
While Campbell County is eager to get the tax money it is owed, it is also sensitive to NTEC’s position. There are a lot of coal miners who will benefit from NTEC’s success. “We want you to succeed, because that helps our community,” said commissioner Del Shelstad.
“We know what it’s like in Campbell County to work with good partners,” said Campbell County commissioner Rusty Bell. “We also know what it’s like to work with not-so-good partners.”