February 7, 2019
This week, Powder River Basin Resource Council (Resource Council) filed a complaint against the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) because the agency withheld documents directly related to Contura’s bond renewal for the Belle Ayr coal mine. The Resource Council’s complaint maintains that DEQ unlawfully withheld land appraisal documents directly related to the bond renewal application. The release of those documents is mandated by Wyoming’s Environmental Quality Act (WEQA) and Public Records Act (WPRA).
In October, the Resource Council filed an objection with DEQ over the proposed renewal of Contura’s Belle Ayr coal mine permit. The DEQ refused to release relevant documents, preventing the Council from reviewing details of the proposal to use parcels of ranchland as collateral in guaranteeing a significant portion of the mine’s reclamation bond. Contura claims the value of these Campbell County land parcels is $27 million; however, DEQ withheld the appraisal from public view at the company’s request, stating it contained confidential material. Furthermore, Contura has also applied to transfer this mine’s permit to another company, Blackjewel, further obscuring public scrutiny of the process.
“This is a complicated situation with both the mine permit renewal and the same permit’s proposed transfer to a different company. We need to make sure the federal and state laws are being followed before allowing these actions to be finalized,” said Resource Council Chair Joyce Evans. “We must be especially vigilant about ensuring adequate bonds are in place. For that to happen, we need an open, transparent access to the information underlying the bond renewal to ensure that Wyoming taxpayers aren’t taking on too much risk.”
Federal and state laws require companies to provide proof of collateral for their reclamation bond obligations. However, DEQ is withholding the appraisal, which is the only evidence supporting whether or not the land parcels being held for nearly 22 percent of the $119 million bond are actually worth that amount. Appraisals, bills of sale, and other evidence including land valuations are commonly disclosed in public records. The appraisals for the two ranches offered as collateral to cover approximately $27 million of the bond should not contain any trade secrets or confidential information.
“We have filed this complaint because withholding the appraisal and then shutting the door on public participation is not the way to proceed. Wyoming taxpayers deserve to know whether or not they’re getting a good deal when it comes to millions of dollars in mine reclamation,” said Evans. Since Contura is the first coal company to use a real estate bond for reclamation, this could set a precedent for other companies to follow.
The Resource Council is represented in the litigation by staff attorney Shannon Anderson and Travis Stills with Energy & Conservation Law.