A Powder River Basin coal mine suddenly ceased operations and sent about 300 workers — a majority from Wyoming — home indefinitely Thursday, over permit disagreements between Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality and the mine’s new owner.
Out-of-state coal firm Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC) recently assumed ownership of the Spring Creek Mine in southern Montana from bankrupt coal company Cloud Peak Energy.
But the ownership transfer stalled this week when Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality denied the new operator a permit due to outstanding legal concerns. In response, NTEC shut down the Spring Creek facility Thursday, leaving hundreds of Wyoming workers, many who commute to the Montana mine, suddenly in the dark.
According to Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, NTEC, which is a Navajo Nation tribal entity, could potentially protect itself from future liabilities using its sovereign immunity. If NTEC violated mining laws, the company’s sovereign immunity could shield it from state or federal jurisdiction, the state agency reasoned.
Shiloh Hernandez, a staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, says sovereign immunity could shield the company from not just environmental laws, but also labor and tax laws.
The Navajo Nation extended partial sovereign immunity to NTEC when it assumed ownership of a coal mine and power plant on the Navajo Nation in 2013. The corresponding indemnity agreement placed the Navajo Nation government potentially on the hook for about $463 million in cleanup costs (attached to the Navajo Nation coal mine and Four Corners Power Plant), if NTEC failed to fulfill its reclamation obligations.