July 3, 2019

The time has come for Wyoming to rise to the occasion and address the truth about the declining coal industry. Wyoming must step up to help Wyoming’s coal communities transition to a new future. The devastating impact to coal miners and the community of Gillette with the abandonment and hollowing out of the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte coal mines by an unscrupulous operator must be addressed.

The state of Wyoming knew that Blackjewel’s CEO, Jeff Hoops, has one of the worst safety and environmental records among coal mine operators. Unfortunately, instead of rejecting Blackjewel’s license to mine, DEQ granted the license to mine and then proposed transferring the coal permits from Contura to Blackjewel. The DEQ proposal would effectively let Contura off the hook for obligations to the miners, the community of Gillette, and the state. Powder River Basin Resource Council is the only entity that objected to the transfer of this permit to this bad operator.

Workers at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines describe working conditions at the coal mines without enough toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms, ink or paper in offices, and barely enough oil or fuel for equipment. Small business and vendors were not paid for their work or supplies. Miners’ health, unemployment, and retirement benefits were not paid. Is this the kind of company Wyoming should issue permits to, to do business in our communities? Blackjewel owes taxes at both the local, state, and federal level and has probably not paid their Black Lung or Abandoned Mine Land payments.

Wyoming and the DEQ need to immediately confirm that financial assurances are sufficient to accomplish the nearly $250 million reclamation work required at the mines. The DEQ’s database indicates that there are about $220 million in third-party bank-issued sureties for reclamation work at the mines, which are still backed by Contura, at least until the permit transfers go through. But about $30 million of the reclamation work is backed by a large ranch property. Questions about the valuation of the properties and the DEQ’s ability to acquire and sell the properties to complete the needed reclamation work are very concerning.

The sooner these financial assurances can be appropriately monetized, the sooner the 600 Wyoming employees left high and dry by Blackjewel’s precipitous bankruptcy filing can return to work, and the sooner reclamation can resume in earnest.

We urge Governor Gordon to take all legal steps necessary to request performance of the bonds from the issuing sureties, and to seize and sell the real property collateral. Once this occurs, we hope there would be a way for the DEQ to quickly re-employ the workers to accelerate the reclamation work that needs to be done. The ongoing bankruptcy may present obstacles to such actions, but the state hiring back the workers to help complete the reclamation work would be the best thing for the employees, the community, and the environment.

Reclamation work, done properly, will take several years, and allow the workers, Gillette and Campbell County to transition rationally and with as little pain as possible to the future economic reality that appears to be inevitable.

(For further reading on risky operators from Appalachia moving to Wyoming, read Bob LeReshe’s editorial in WyoFile published April 2019.)

  • Joyce Evans, Chair, Powder River Basin Resource Council. The Powder River Basin Resource Council, founded in 1973, is a family agriculture and conservation organization in Wyoming. Resource Council members are family farmers and ranchers and concerned citizens who are committed to conservation of our unique land, mineral, water, and clean air resources.