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Tribal sovereignty and coal mine reclamation clash

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Rockies Today

October 25 · Issue #23 · View online
The big stories up and down the Rocky Mountains, curated by Mountain West News

Tribal sovereignty and coal mine reclamation clash
Montana’s largest coal mine abruptly shut down Thursday after state environmental officials refused to grant the mine’s new owner, a Navajo Nation-owned business entity, an operating permit. Montana wants the company to waive sovereign immunity to ensure it backs reclamation bonds—bonds that could present a $1 billion risk to the Navajo Nation.
Montana's largest coal mine closes as new owner struggles with bonding Montana's largest coal mine closes as new owner struggles with bonding
Montana’s largest coal mine has been shut down over bonding issues with the state Department of Environmental Quality.
DEQ has denied an operating permit to Spring Creek Mine owner Navajo Transitional Energy Company. NTEC is wholly owned by Navajo Nation. There are concerns the tribe won’t be backing mine bonds with its full faith and credit as NTEC takes possession of Montana and Wyoming coal mines it bought this month at a Cloud Peak Energy bankruptcy auction.
Backing the mine bonds would require Navajo Nation waiving sovereign immunity, something it hasn’t done and continued to debate doing even as NTEC sought DEQ permitting this week. The company has sent most of its 300 Spring Creek workers home until the dispute is resolved, though it didn’t say when that might be.
Without that waiver of tribal sovereign immunity, it becomes difficult for regulators to sue over any problems at Spring Creek or to collect for environmental liabilities.
Meanwhile, lawyers for Navajo Nation are raising concerns about the tribe’s financial risk associated with NTEC’s new mines. The Gallup Independent reports that the Navajo Department of Justice and Navajo Nation controller are concerned that reclamation bonds for the mines present a $1 billion risk for Navajo Nation if NTEC can’t cover reclamation costs. That money would be owed to surety companies.
More reporting on the dispute:
Navajo company shuts coal mine in dispute over sovereignty
Purchase of Spring Creek mine leads to suspended operations
BLM quiets local advisory councils
Local advisory councils fading under Trump’s BLM Local advisory councils fading under Trump’s BLM
In 2015, Bureau of Land Management staff in Colorado had a problem: Guffey Gorge in South Park County, a two-hour drive from Denver, was becoming a hot spot for the worrisome combination of cliff diving, crowds, and alcohol consumption. With more than 20,000 people swimming each summer at the cove of golden boulders bisected by a tiny waterfall, litter and erosion were also concerns. So the BLM turned to its Rocky Mountain resource advisory council, or RAC — a 15-person volunteer board of public lands users — for advice. The council weighed in on options. By 2018, the BLM added tighter rules on parking, noise, dogs, alcohol, and a $6 day-use fee.
It was one of the projects that, to Scott Braden, then a member of the Rocky Mountain RAC, showed the purpose these councils serve. A public lands conservation advocate, Braden’s council — as with the 36 others around the West, where the bulk of the BLM’s 245 million acres lie — was comprised of various public land users: ranchers, energy company representatives, local government officials, wildlife organization members, environmental groups, dispersed recreation advocates, off-road vehicle users, academic institutions, and tribes. 
“We felt like all of our voices were valid and we felt that the BLM staff in particular were really accessible to us,” Braden, now a stay-at-home dad who hikes with his infant daughter on BLM land almost daily, said. “And it felt like that began to change right after the election as the new administration began to take shape.”
Under the Trump administration, many of these councils have seen attrition in membership. Some members say the Department of Interior isn’t processing applications. Certain councils have gone a year or more without meeting. Many have seen their charters revised to prioritize this administration’s goals. BLM acting director William Perry Pendley has framed the decision to relocate the agency’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, as one predicated on more local guidance in overseeing public lands. But to those involved in RACs, the sentiment is disingenuous.
More news relating to the Interior Department and public lands:
Interior removes controversial proposed change from final FOIA rule
Revenue from drilling on public lands increased by a third last year
Interior disburses $641.1 million in energy revenues to Wyoming
Colorado's share of federal energy revenues totals over $100 million
Americans would rather reduce oil and gas exploration than ‘drill, baby, drill’
U.S. House to vote on Colorado public lands preservation
BLM chief’s wild horse fixation distracts from the real threats to public land
Igniting a Utah forest to study fire and smoke
A few stories and a video about the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment underway on the Fishlake National Forest in Utah:
Burning questions: Researchers to ignite a Utah forest to study fire and smoke
Why scientists are setting a giant wildfire on purpose
Watch how the Forest Service burned down 2,000 acres for research
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports on prescribed burns:
A forecast for a warming world: Learn to live with fire
What else we're reading today
South Dakota backs off harsh new protest law and ‘riot-boosting’ penalties
Alberta counting on oil and pipeline surge to balance the books: budget
Unravelling B.C.’s landmark legislation on Indigenous rights
The Navajo Nation is getting addresses, thanks to an open-source mapping program used in urban India
Grizzly bear reintroduction plans eyed for Northern Cascades
The red-state savior Democrats don’t want
Rockies Today is edited by Matthew Frank, Fellow in Regional Journalism at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.
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O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana, 59812