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Dispute Over Coal Permit Transfers Ends In Delay

Screenshot of Environmental Quality Council before hearing Mark Thrall

Contura Coal West would like to renew and transfer permits for the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines over to another coal company: Blackjewel. In August 2018, Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) deemed the permit application technically complete.

Following the application's release to public comment, the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a land-owners group, objected with several concerns. The concerns included using land as collateral to back reclamation bonds, a lack of transparency to the land's appraisal, and concerns over Blackjewel's outstanding mine permit violations.

The group requested an informal conference with the DEQ which was rejected. It turned into a two-day hearing in front of the Environmental Quality Council, an independent review board, that took place this week: May 15 and 16.

Contura Coal West used 40,000 acres of land to back up clean-up bonds. It used an appraiser who valued it around $26 million, but Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said those documents weren't made public.

"Even though maybe the appraisal was OK, it's still just an opinion at a point in time and we need to be really careful that we're valuing this property appropriately," she said. "When it comes time to do the reclamation work we have to have enough money… otherwise, taxpayers are left at risk."

During the hearing, violations against Blackjewel's owner Jeff Hoops also came up. The mine permit violations were related to Revelation Energy, a company also owned by Hoops. There were 42 mine permit violations. The Powder River Basin Resource Council argued there's a pattern of willful violations of environmental law, which should stop the DEQ from awarding new permits.

Blackjewel's lawyer argued those violations are not related to its work in Wyoming. He posed the question to Mark Thrall, an environmental manager for the company.

"Do you have any control over the eastern operations on the Blackjewel east side of things?" The council asked.

"I do not. It's separate management," Thrall said.

Thrall followed up by saying violations haven't stopped permit transfers in the past.

The Environmental Quality Council overseeing the hearing did not make a decision to accept or put-off the permits. It postponed a decision until later this summer to get more information on the process by which mine violations affect and potentially block Blackjewel from receiving Contura's permits.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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