State environmental regulators said Tuesday they've reached a short-term, 65-day deal with the owners of Montana's largest coal mine to keep operating while negotiations continue for a long-term agreement.
The Navajo Transitional Energy Company, wholly owned by the Navajo tribe, will operate the Spring Creek mine under a limited waiver of sovereign immunity agreement, according to a release from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
The mine had been operating under a 75-day agreement signed in October that would have expired Wednesday. The extension will expire March 13.
Spring Creek has about 260 employees.
The waiver of sovereign immunity allows the state to enforce state environmental laws governing coal mining, including required cleanup.
“We are committed to continuing our conversations with NTEC to ensure that NTEC’s affiliation with the Navajo Nation is duly recognized and respected, while also ensuring that the state-issued permits for the mine are fully enforceable, on par with any other coal mine operating under state laws,” said DEQ director Shaun McGrath in a written statement. “This is a unique and complex issue that requires us to be deliberate in our approach to avoid any unintended consequences. We appreciate NTEC’s commitment to working through these issues with us.”
The Navajo Transitional Energy Company bought Spring Creek and two Wyoming mines, Cordero Rojo and Antelope, in August from the bankrupt Cloud Peak Energy.
The future of the mine became cloudy when leaders of the Navajo Nation announced after the purchase they would not back the $108 million in reclamation bonds and mineral lease transfers required to operate the mine.
Officials at Navajo Transitional, which is funded by the tribe but operates independently, say they are seeking outside backers to satisfy the bond requirements.