Originally published Monday Nov. 16, 2015 by Environment & Energy Daily. Contact E&E for permission to republish.
A Wyoming-based conservation group is moving to block state regulators from allowing bankrupt coal company Alpha Natural Resources Inc. to continue operations at its Eagle Butte mine, one of the largest in the country.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council asked the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for an informal conference to discuss concerns about the state’s plan to issue the permit. Regulators turned it down.
Now the group is asking the state’s Environmental Quality Council (EQC) — an independent regulatory body appointed by the governor — to intervene.
The move is evidence of environmentalists continuing to push their concerns about coal mine bonding amid tough times for the industry. Companies must post financial assurances to guarantee mine cleanups.
Because of Alpha’s precarious situation, in September DEQ put off asking Alpha for more bonding in exchange for putting the state ahead in line among Alpha’s creditors for $61 million (Greenwire, Sept. 9).
Attorney and organizer Shannon Anderson says the state may be violating federal and state law in denying the conference and moving to issue the Eagle Butte permit. In a filing Thursday, Anderson asked the EQC to help rectify the situation.
“We also respectfully ask the EQC to issue a temporary order preventing the DEQ from approving the permit renewal until such time as the informal conference is held and an order is issued therefrom,” she wrote.
The Resource Council’s filing accused state regulators of crafting the financial assurance agreement in secret with Alpha, potentially violating the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
“Bankruptcy does not exempt Alpha from compliance, nor does it afford DEQ the flexibility to waive enforcement of these non-discretionary duties via a contract with the company,” said the group.
The state has been fighting any attempt by groups to attack the deal, saying it protects jobs by ensuring mining continues. Getting new financial assurances would have further strained Alpha.
On Friday, DEQ asked the Environmental Quality Council to scrap any proceedings stemming from the Resource Council’s Thursday filing. The agency said proceedings in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia prevent the state from debating the deal.
“The [bankruptcy court] stay is not limited in its preclusive effect to the State of Wyoming and the DEQ, and the failure to abide by the order of the bankruptcy court could subject the Powder River Basin Resource Council or any other initiating individual or entity, including DEQ, to civil contempt proceedings,” wrote aides for Wyoming’s attorney general.
Last month, the Sierra Club sent DEQ a citizens complaint, accusing regulators of allowing Alpha to conduct strip-mining operations without enough bonding. The group threatened to take its concerns to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (Greenwire, Oct. 30).
— Flickr Creative Commons photo by Aaron Hockley.