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Feds query Wyoming regulators about coal mine bond decisions

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Federal regulators have told Wyoming to provide more justification for allowing less than full bonding for four coal mines while the mine owners go through bankruptcy reorganization.

Bonding for the mines owned by Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources is insufficient under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, groups including the Powder River Basin Resource Council told the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality last year.

Citing the groups’ complaints, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on Thursday gave the state agency 10 days to further justify why it’s not seeking full bonding from the companies.

Bonding helps guarantee there will be money available for cleanup after an industrial site shuts down. Wyoming, however, has allowed several coal companies over the years to self-bond, or provide their own financial assurances they would be able to totally fill in and reclaim their mines. That’s in lieu of conventional bonding which requires pledging collateral or purchasing protection from an insurance company.

Last year, Wyoming struck a deal to be a high-priority creditor to secure $61 million out of $411 million in required bonding for Alpha’s mines. Alpha previously had self-bonded its Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in the Powder River Basin.

The DEQ has allowed Arch Coal to continue self-bonding its Coal Creek and Black Thunder mines. Black Thunder is one of the world’s largest coal-mining complexes.

“We just received both of these letters and will need time to review,” DEQ spokesman Keith Guille said by email Friday. “We will respond directly to OSM within the required time limit.”

Bristol, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August. St. Louis-based Arch Coal followed suit last week.

It’s good that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is taking a serious look at Wyoming’s oversight of coal mine bonding during the bankruptcies, Powder River Basin Resource Council attorney Shannon Anderson said Friday.

“We told them this would be a risk. The state program has to meet the federal requirements. That’s the way it works. You can’t create your own law just to suit your own purposes,” Anderson said.

In related news, Wyoming officials back various schemes in bid to rescue coal.

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