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Court Decisions Sets Precedent For Reclamation-Related Public Records

View of the southeastern part of the Black Thunder ranch - land considered in the appraisal document
Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality

The First Judicial District Court in Wyoming ruled in favor of a landowners group in a case considering the release of previously confidential reclamation documents to the public. It helps shed light on how Contura Coal West, LLC (Contura) is backing 20 percent of its reclamation obligations for the Belle Ayr mine in the Powder River Basin.

In 2017, Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) accepted the real property collateral bond. A certified appraiser showed that nearly 50,000 acres of property were collectively worth $26.7 million. It was appraised twice, and then reviewed by another appraiser, according to the DEQ.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC), the landowners group, filed a petition in February 2019 arguing that document should be released. A request had previously been denied in October 2018. General counsel with the mine's operator, Blackjewel LLC, had said, "the confidentiality of the appraisal report is tantamount and vital to our continued viability and remaining competitive in the coal market."

However, on August 20, Judge Steven Sharpe sided with the landowners group.

"In this case, the public possesses an important right to know if its government has adequate security or collateral to cover the costs of reclaiming coal mining property," Sharpe wrote. "The court finds little, if any, information in the report that could be considered 'private' or 'secret' in nature."

PRBRC chair Joyce Evans said she's pleased the judge agrees the reclamation process needs to be an open and transparent one, "in order to protect Wyoming's taxpayers from taking on too much risk."

"The Wyoming people would have remained in the dark, not knowing if they were getting a good deal or not," Evans said.

Keith Guille, DEQ spokesman, said the department does not see a problem with the judge's determination.

"We're fine with that. It's provided clarity to us," Guille said.

Uniform Agricultural Appraisal Report for pasture 12 miles SW of Gillette
Credit Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality
Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality
Uniform Agricultural Appraisal Report for pasture 12 miles SW of Gillette

Shannon Anderson, PRBRC staff attorney, said the released appraisal documents are telling. That it shows land value in Campbell County can vary significantly. She said the problem isn't that the land could be appraised at the wrong price, but that a slight miscalculation per acre could throw everything off.

"If you're wrong and the property sells for less than you thought it would that means a substantial sum of money that the state's not going to have available to it for reclamation," Anderson said, though not saying the price in this case was incorrect.

She said appraisals are an important part of the permitting process.

"We really felt that in order for a citizen, or a neighbor, [or] an organization like ours to be able to write informed comments on whether the bonding was adequate, you had to be able to see the appraisal," Anderson said.

The Chapter 11 reorganization of Blackjewel did not factor into the discussion.

According to DEQ's Guille, the department will not appeal the decision.

The full 116-page report can be read here.

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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