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High marks initially for Alpha Natural's plan to get coal mines out of bankruptcy

Jul 10, 2016 By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

The global coal giant owns the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, two of the biggest mines in the United States.

CHEYENNE (AP) -- A bankruptcy court deal that seeks to guarantee the future owner of two of Wyoming's major coal mines can meet its mine-cleanup obligations won praise Friday from a landowners group and the state officials who played a role in it.

"We ensured the mines remained in operation, reclamation continues, and the state's interests and environment are protected," said Keith Guille, spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

A federal judge in Virginia approved the agreement Thursday in the bankruptcy case of Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha Natural Resources owns the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

As the company exits bankruptcy reorganization, those mines and others in Virginia and West Virginia will go to a new company, Contura Energy.

For years, under a practice known as self-bonding, Alpha relied on its solid financial footing to guarantee it could clean up mines that close.

The bankruptcies of several coal companies nationwide have called self-bonding into question. Some, including U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, have said self-bonding risks leaving taxpayers responsible for having to reclaim and restore coal mines that close.

Nationwide, self-bonding of coal mines tops $3.3 billion. Several states taken steps to do away with self-bonding. Self-bonding in Wyoming, the top coal-producing state, tops $2 billion.

As part of an environmental cleanup agreement affecting six states, Contura Energy, instead of self-bonding, will post $264 million in reclamation bonds for its Wyoming mines.

Wyoming should treat the agreement as a precedent to do away with self-bonding in Wyoming's altogether, the Powder River Basin Resource Council said in a news release.

"If our goal is to protect Wyoming taxpayers and (ensure) that timely reclamation occurs, self-bonding should never again be allowed," council Chairman Bob LeResche said.

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