SHERIDAN — The Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Navajo Transitional Energy company announced they reached a short-term agreement late Friday that will allow coal production at the Spring Creek Mine to resume.
The interim agreement will keep the mine operating for 75 days while the two parties continue negotiating a long-term agreement, according to Montana DEQ Public Policy Director Rebecca Harbage; it can last beyond 75 days if both parties agree to an extension, she added.
While some of the issues that led to the closure will still need to be sorted out, the mine’s reopening will spare hundreds of Sheridan County workers from a furlough that would have begun Monday had the mine remained closed; Spring Creek Mine employs 300 workers and the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce estimates at least 95% of those workers live in Sheridan County.
Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, who had been in contact with officials on both sides of the negotiations through Thursday and Friday, said only fire and safety staff have worked at Spring Creek Mine the past two days, but the company had enough cash on hand to pay workers through Monday.
“Crisis was averted,” Western said. “Monday was the deadline for when the hurt would really start to happen, so we were able to avoid the worst of it, which is obviously beneficial for everybody.”
NTEC announced the closure of Spring Creek Mine Thursday, shortly after officially assuming control of the mine from Cloud Peak Energy, because the company was unable to obtain an operating permit for the mine from the Montana DEQ.
The Montana DEQ wanted NTEC, which is wholly owned by the Navajo Nation, to partially waive its sovereign immunity so the agency could enforce the state’s laws with regard to the mine.
Friday’s agreement does not settle that issue, as the short-term agreement allows NTEC to operate Spring Creek Mine as a contractor under its existing operating agreement, but will let the two sides continue negotiations without closing the mine.
Harbage confirmed NTEC and Montana DEQ will continue negotiations during the 75-day window opened by the short-term agreement.
Western said his understanding was Montana DEQ wanted NTEC to waive sovereign immunity related to civilian lawsuits in Montana courts, ensuring any Montana resident can sue NTEC in civil court.
NTEC also took control of two Wyoming mines Thursday — the Cordero Rojo Mine and the Antelope Mine — and while those mines continued operating this week, Western said Wyoming will have to come to a long-term agreement with NTEC regarding those mines as well.
“This entire time, Wyoming has been going through the same negotiating process with NTEC, it’s just that Wyoming granted them a temporary permit to operate their mines,” Western said. “This bodes well for Wyoming and the Wyoming DEQ’s negotiations with NTEC.”