In a span of less than 36 hours, hundreds of former Wyoming Blackjewel LLC coal miners have gone from wondering if the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines would ever reopen to wondering who they may be working for when they reopen.
Two companies have made offers to buy the mines after six weeks of near silence of what appeared to be stalled negotiations between the federal government and Contura Energy Inc., which bought the mines as the only bidder at Blackjewel’s bankruptcy auction.
Contura announced Wednesday it has an agreement with FM Coal that would pay the Alabama-based company $90 million to take over the mines and the $237 million worth of reclamation obligations that goes with them. Contura also agreed to pay Campbell County $13.5 million of the $15.1 million it owes in unpaid production taxes along with some other expenses.
FM Coal wasn’t the only suitor for Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr, the nation’s fourth- and sixth-largest coal mines.
Aspen Coal & Energy LLC and its CEO, Tom Clarke, also made a pitch for the mines. After seeing the announcement about Contura’s agreement with FM Coal, it has “sweetened the pot” with a new offer submitted Thursday, Clarke said.
Although it seems Contura and FM Coal have an agreement, Clarke said he doesn’t consider Aspen Coal out of the running to acquire the mines, especially after his company is now guaranteeing full payments to Blackjewel’s major debt holders.
Seeing Wednesday’s announcement “was disappointing,” he said in a telephone interview with the News Record. But he’s confident Aspen’s new terms will win over Contura and Blackjewel’s creditors.
“Initially, the thinking was to operate Belle Ayr full steam ahead, then reclaim Eagle Butte,” Clarke said about Aspen’s initial offer. “Now, we’re committed to operating both mines fully for the remainder of the mines’ life.”
He also said that under Aspen’s offer, not only will Campbell County recoup the full $15.1 million owed by Contura, but another $22 million owed by Blackjewel, plus interest.
Aspen also will commit to making payments to the federal government to cover $50 million in back royalties and lease payments, which were a sticking point in the negotiations with Contura.
“We’re assuming that if we’re the successful bidder, we’re trying to take care of every stakeholder and pay every penny owed, with interest,” he said. “That’s what we’re committing to.”
That includes guaranteeing Blackjewel’s senior debt holder, Riverstone Credit Partners, the full $43.2 million its owed. The Aspen Coal & Energy term sheet spells out that it’s willing to make a $10 million payment to Riverstone, then pay the rest over the next two years. Blackjewel also would get $18.5 million, less any Contura deposits, for administrative expenses.
Any deal with either FM Coal or Aspen Coal & Energy will need approval from Blackjewel’s senior debt holders and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
Most importantly, Clarke said he’s committed to making sure the Blackjewel employees who were abruptly locked out of their jobs without any notice or severance “are completely made whole.”
That includes paying any back wages still owed for time worked before Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy and making up payments the company failed to make to their 401(k) and health savings accounts.
He also had some strong words for Blackjewel and its former CEO and president, Jeff Hoops Sr., who was forced out of his job early on in the bankruptcy process by the company’s senior creditors.
“For Hoops, operating these mines was absolutely a grab-bag for money,” Clarke said, adding that the position employees were put in “is unexcusable.”
Wants to earn trust
More than 10 weeks of unemployment and the overall bankruptcy process has left many of Blackjewel’s nearly 600 former Wyoming coal miners at bit jaded.
Over the past 82 days, they’ve been teased several times about possibly being recalled, are still owed back wages and other payments to their 401(k) and health savings accounts that were never made and had their health insurance terminated.
The news about FM Coal possibly taking over and operating the mines, and now Aspen’s new push, has many former Blackjewel workers wondering if they were to return to work, what kind of company they’d be working for.
“I expect the employees to be jaded,” Clarke said, adding that he wants Aspen Coal & Energy to be a good company to work for. “You can’t do that with words, though, you have to do it with actions.”
Because of the “inexcusable” way they’ve been treated throughout the Blackjewel bankruptcy process so far, he said he expects many won’t be willing to return to their jobs.
“If you tried to rehire people today, you may get 40% back,” Clarke said. After six months or so of proving itself, he’s confident “we could then, through reputation, get another 40%.”
He also said that if Aspen proves to win out and own the mines, it will be operated from Gillette.
“We’re going to live in Gillette,” he said. “We can’t be managing this from afar. We want to be good citizens and neighbors.”
That would start with meeting with former Blackjewel employees. Clarke has set an Oct. 11 deadline to close a deal, and said that if Aspen’s the final choice, “then the next day we’ll (be in Gillette) and have a meeting to inform everyone.”
What’s in it for Contura?
Whether FM Coal or Aspen eventually end up owning and operating the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines, the eventual result would be the same for Contura Energy — out of the Powder River Basin for good.
Contura was formed by Alpha Natural Resource creditors who bought the mines in 2015 during Alpha’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. It operated the mines for a couple of years before transferring them to Blackjewel LLC in December 2017. No money changed hands because Blackjewel agreed to assume Contura’s debt as payment.
While Blackjewel eventually obtained a permit to mine coal in Wyoming, it never was successful in assuming nearly $250 million in reclamation obligations, which remained with Contura. Now that Blackjewel also is in bankruptcy, Contura remains responsible for reclaiming the mines.
By paying $90 million to whichever company agrees to take over the mines is essentially an attempt for Contura to wash its hands of the mines once and for all, said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming College of Business.
“What this does is make it very clear that for $100 million-plus, Contura is buying their way out of any obligation for reclamation,” he said. “Basically, this is paying the other guy to take things over.”
Even if Aspen’s new offer isn’t successful, Clarke said just making it will benefit Campbell County and former Blackjewel employees because FM Coal will likely have to sweeten its offer to match.
“I don’t know who’s going to win, but at least it’s competitive,” he said. “Even if we lose out, it still helps everyone.”
Local high school students face one of the toughest decisions that will affect their lives beyond high school: whether or not to go to college, and if so, where.
University of Wyoming representatives were in Campbell County on Thursday as part of the university’s “The World Needs More Cowboys” promotional drive.
Among those who made the four-hour drive from Laramie were Acting President Neil Theobald and a few familiar faces who spoke to students about the merits of attending UW.
“I really have no idea what’s going on, so I’m glad they came so I can hear a little more,” said Campbell County High School senior Halli Beckman.
“I think it kind of makes me realize that I’m close to graduating and I really need to get on top of my work and decide what I want to do in my life,” said Thunder Basin High School senior Erica Cortez.
It’s a big world out there
Three Campbell County alums — Bradon Bryngelson and Tate Daly from TBHS and Wright Junior-Senior High School graduate Adrienne Mackenzie — along with Sundance Secondary School graduate Olivia Croft, joined Theobald and UW physics and astronomy professor Danny Dale in speaking with students.
The Campbell County graduates talked about their initial concerns about leaving home for college.
“It was a little bit of a shock,” Mackenzie said.
Her 2016 graduating class had 30 students and UW is large, but the faculty are really invested, she said.
Going to Laramie gives students a chance to meet other people from Campbell County as well as from around the world, Daly said.
“I didn’t realize so many people in the U.S. went to UW,” said TBHS junior Wyatt Bolken.
The alums and Dale talked about the importance of not only intermingling with students, but getting involved in clubs, organizations and pursuing internships.
“The possibilities are almost endless,” Daly said.
“No matter what your background is, you’ll find your place at UW,” Croft said. “There’s so many different opportunities.”
A sign of respect
Theobald spoke to students about the importance of getting a higher education.
“We are in a society where education is the door you must go through in order to do what you want,” he said.
If students do not have a particular passion they should strongly consider going to college, Theobald added.
“The armor in the modern world is education,” he said.
“I thought it was really interesting, not only in getting students’ perspectives, but the president’s perspective,” TBHS senior Mason Westervelt said about the presentations. “He could be appealing to the crowd, but he seemed genuine. He seemed interested in what students have to say.”
Riley Swartz said Theobald’s appearance was “really a show of force” and displayed how committed the school is.
“I also think it was a sign of respect,” he said.
Bolken said he enjoyed the presentation so much he is thinking about going to Laramie to pursue a career in welding.
“It sounds like a nice school to go to,” he said.
How ’bout them Cowboys?
The event also promoted the school’s “The World Needs More Cowboys” campaign.
For some students the slogan is a mixed message.
“I kind of agree with it, but kind of disagree with it,” Westervelt said.
On the one hand, a non-Wyomingite’s idea of a cowboy is someone who ride horses all day. But for people in Wyoming “it means hard work, it means people who tried their best on the things they love,” he said.
Bolken, who grew up riding horses, agreed with the slogan “100% definitely.”
“It’s kind of a dying breed,” he said. “There aren’t as many as it used to be.”For Rawhide Elementary School Principal Bertine Bahige, being a Cowboy means to be thankful for the opportunities he was given and for those he can provide for students.
The big students on campus
Daly graduated from TBHS in 2019, Brygnelson the year before, but after each assembly at Thunder Basin, seniors and juniors gravitated toward them like fans trying to meet Elvis Presley. Instead of seeking autographs, however, they wanted advice.
“When you get there it’s a different world,” Daly said. “Even though it’s in another corner of the state, it’s part of a community.”
The students “were really excited and cared about what I had to say. I appreciate that,” he said.
Brygnelson advised students to join clubs, “make friends and find what you like in life.”
Westervelt took classes with both students and is good friends with Daly, a former speech and debate teammate.
“It’s neat to see them succeeding,” Westervelt said. “They are moving forward, which you love to see.”
A judge denied a motion to reduce the bond of a teenager who is charged as an adult with multiple counts of attempted first-degree murder.
Dale Warner has been in the Campbell County Jail since Nov. 13 on a $275,000 cash-only bond. Warner, 15, is accused of bringing two guns and 36 bullets to Sage Valley Junior High School on Nov. 13, allegedly with a plan to shoot nine students and teachers.
In March, Warner pleaded not guilty to nine charges of attempted first-degree murder.
His attorneys, local public defender Jefferson Coombs and Wyoming State Public Defender Diane M. Lozano, asked that his bond be reduced to $10,000 and that he be placed under his parents’ supervision.
District Judge Michael N. “Nick” Deegan denied the motion to modify the bond during a Thursday afternoon hearing, saying Warner is “a threat to public safety.”
Most of the inmates in the juvenile detention center in the Campbell County Jail are there for days at a time, but Warner has been in jail for more than 10 months, Coombs said, adding that sometimes he is the only person there.
“The seclusion has been difficult,” Coombs said.
Coombs said Warner is not a flight risk because his family lives in Campbell County, and added that Warner would not be a danger to the community if he is under 24/7 supervision from his parents.
Coombs recommended that Warner live with his father and stepmother in a home free of all guns, alcohol, drugs and other mind-altering substances. Heritage Christian School offered to help set Warner up with online schooling, which would be done at his home under his parents’ supervision.
Coombs also proposed having Warner wear an ankle monitor that pings every minute so his location is known at all times.
With the 24/7 supervision by his parents, as well as removal of abusable substances, “the community can also be kept safe,” Coombs said.
Prosecuting attorney Nathan Henkes said Warner is a risk to society. He pointed out that Warner was living with his parents when the Sage Valley incident happened and that Warner has a history of drug use.
Warner also has received several write-ups during his time at the JDC, including for punching another inmate, lying, refusing to follow commands, threatening to hurt others and encouraging others to riot, Henkes said.
Coombs said it’s been five months since Warner’s last write-up, which shows that his behavior has improved.
If Warner were an adult, he would be looking at life in prison for each count.
Coombs also asked Deegan that if he wasn’t willing to change the bond, if he would at least consider allowing Warner semi-monthly contact with his family. He now can only talk to his family through a video screen.
“It’s very difficult” for Warner to not have direct contact with his family, Coombs said.
Deegan recognized that it can be very difficult for a teenager to be separated from his family, adding that it’s “hard for even adult prisoners.” But he does not want to tell the sheriff how to run his jail.
In the coming weeks, he and the attorneys will talk to see “what we can do for some kind of human contact.”
There will be a hearing Oct. 28-30 to determine whether Warner’s case should be moved to juvenile court.