The Gillette City Council is on a path to take more than a pot shot at private parking lots with dangerous potholes.
The council gave its initial OK this week to an ordinance change that would allow officials to fine private lot owners up to $750 for failing to maintain their lots to the point their condition presents a public safety hazard.
The proposed maximum fine is a 750% increase over the $100 the city can now impose. The hike was approved on first reading this week and needs two more favorable votes before it would be official.
The city is not liable for fixing potholes in private parking lots or access points to the lots. But it is responsible for letting property owners know if a parking lot has potholes that are to the point of being a public safety concern.
The city is not suggesting it close access to parking lots or level large fines for every lot that has a pothole. The intent is to encourage owners to fix some egregious spots that have extremely large potholes and to overall keep their lots in good repair, said City Planner Clark Sanders.
In July, the city gave staff the go-ahead to research and proceed with a proposal to address potholes, crumbling asphalt or other surface coverings and weeds in private parking lots.
“The city Planning Division recognizes the improper maintenance of private parking lots and/or private rights of way or easements which are dedicated for public use has a direct bearing on health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Gillette,” according to an informational report for the City Council.
It added that improper maintenance has an economic impact and “brings about blight, decay and decreased property values, and loss to both private and public revenues.”
The Planning Commission in September voted 4-0 in favor of the amendment.
The city has fielded numerous complaints about safety, especially potholes in private parking lots throughout the community, city spokesman Geno Palazzari said.
The proposed ordinance would allow the city to step in if it deems a parking lot is unsafe and needs repairs.
At that point, it will issue an owner a letter to include the nature of the violation, a corrective action plan and ask for the owner’s cooperation.
If a private landowner continues to ignore the issue, the city could abate the property, fix the issue itself and then charge the property owner the cost of repairs.
While it’s not part of the ordinance, the city also would give a six-month grace period to allow owners to arrange for contractors and weather to cooperate to repair any violations. That said, the city wants to see owners make some kind of progress, Palazzari said.
The ordinance will have its second reading Oct. 15.
While much of the Powder River Basin’s coal industry was monitoring a U.S. Bankruptcy Court sale hearing for Blackjewel LLC’s Wyoming coal mines in West Virginia on Wednesday, another bankruptcy court also was approving the sale of Cloud Peak Energy’s three active Powder River Basin mines to Navajo Transitional Energy Corp.
Judge Kevin Gross of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware signed an order Wednesday giving final approval of the sale of the Antelope and Cordero Rojo mines in Campbell County and Spring Creek mine in Montana.
“We are pleased to have this final order approved and look forward to assuming operations in Montana and Wyoming in mid-October,” said NTEC CEO Clark Moseley in a press release announcing the order. “As a company, we have a solid record of returning mines to profitability and doing so as an industry leader in safety and reclamation.”
The sale makes NTEC the nation’s third largest coal producer.
The Native corporation based in Farmington, New Mexico, will take over mines that employ about 1,200 people and pay about $230 million annually in federal and state taxes and royalties.
NTEC was selected as the winning bidder for Cloud Peak’s major assets in an August bankruptcy sale.
During a short Friday morning status hearing with Judge Gross, Cloud Peak attorney Paul Health said the company anticipates an Oct. 18 closing date for the sale and that NTEC has agreed to retain virtually all of the company’s employees.
“They are taking all but six of our employees, and we’re very, very happy with that,” Health said. “We’re pleased to report the NTEC sale is on track.”
Navajo Transitional Energy is buying the mines, along with the Sequatchie Valley reclamation project, for $15.7 million cash to be paid as a deposit upon closing the sale. NTEC also will assume a $40 million second lien promissory note and pay up to $20 million in post-petition debts accrued during the bankruptcy process.
The company has agreed to pay a 15-cent per ton royalty for five years on coal produced at the Antelope and Spring Creek mines, and the same royalty on coal produced over 10 million tons at the Cordero Rojo mine.
The native corporation also has agreed to pay any pre- and post-bankruptcy federal, state and local tax liabilities Cloud Peak has outstanding and assume all reclamation obligations.
That’s good news for Campbell County, which wasn’t paid $8.3 million in production tax that was due just hours after Cloud Peak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 10.
Navajo Transitional Energy also owns the Navajo Mine in the Four Corners area and is organized under the Navajo Nation.
A fly in the ointment?
It’s that relationship with the Navajo Nation that has brought up questions about the sale to NTEC. The company’s only shareholder is the Navajo Nation, but it operates independently under its own board of directors.
Allegations that NTEC undertook the bidding for and purchase of the Cloud Peak mines without consulting the Navajo Nation Council is the subject of a Sept. 27 news story in the Navajo Times newspaper.
In that report, Shiprock, New Mexico, delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton says the sale “is a deal that cannot and should not be supported by the Council.”
Those rumblings “suggests that the community there probably is not entirely behind this deal,” said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Police at the University of Wyoming. “You have to wonder what’s going on there, and there is some noise coming out about it. But whether it’s just smoke and not much else or there’s a real fire there we just don’t know.”
A good short-term fix
The Blackjewel sale of the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines to Eagle Specialty Materials was given its final OK by the court on the same day the NTEC sale was signed. It means that four large Wyoming coal mines representing 24% of 2018 Powder River Basin production were essentially sold on the same day.
It also could mean an end to an at-times tumultuous summer for Campbell County coal miners and the industry, Godby said.
“Wyoming has spent this summer learning from the school of hard knocks,” he said, referring mostly to a messy Blackjewel bankruptcy that saw hundreds of workers put out of work without notice.
It also raises some questions for the future of coal in the PRB, he said. That’s because the basin continues to post production losses and less demand as coal-fired electricity generation shuts down around the country.
“I’m still interested to see at what scale Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte reopen to,” he said. “As for NTEC, it’s easy to see why they want Antelope and easy to see why Spring Creek represents an investment for anyone. Cordero Rojo, though, is a burden with the lowest grade coal of any of them.”
Along with a pending merger of coal giants Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, all the mines in the PRB continuing to operate in the long run seems unlikely, Godby said.
“The way current conditions are, somebody’s got to blink in all of this eventually,” he said.
Overall, however, the news seems better for all involved, he said.
“For once, there’s at least some short-term good news in the Blackjewel case and the Cloud Peak one is progressing as it should, despite some reports of internal dissension in the tribe,” Godby said.
News of PacificCorp’s plans to shut down its coal-fired power plants earlier than anticipated (see sotry on Page A5) is a warning that “in the longer term, we’re going to be seeing more of this,” Godby said, adding that for now, Campbell County residents can breathe a little easier.
“In the short term, this is good news for the community of Gillette,” he said. “But for the long term in the state, it’s kind of like ‘Groundhog Day.’ It’s going to keep happening.”
U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran Don Richman had unexpected tears in his eyes Thursday afternoon after hearing a moving performance by the Campbell County High School marching band.
“That announcer, I wasn’t expecting to hear him talk,” said Richman about hearing words spoken by retired U.S. Army Sgt. Nate Fulton, who read a soldier’s letters during the band’s “Letters From a Prisoner of War” performance.
Richman recalled his time on the USS Coral Sea 20 miles from the Vietnam coast, where he was stationed from 1969-71. It also was where each night he watched bombs drop from planes and helicopters be shot down.
“It just couldn’t stop,” he said. “I was scared to death when I went to Vietnam. It was an entirely different world.”
A look at the letters
“Letters From a Prisoner of War,” composed by Randall Standridge, tells the story of a soldier’s journey from home to the battlefront in three movements or sections.
“Dear mom and dad, we are shipping out today,” Fulton read. “I was scared and excited all at the same time. This is what I came here for, to defend my country, across land, air and seas. Wish us luck, With love, Your Son.”
“Dear mom and dad, we landed today. Wow. This place is very different from home. Things are quiet right now. Our battalion moves out tomorrow. I’m sure I will be up most of my night thinking of you two. With love, Your Son.”
“Dear mom and dad, I’m moving out this morning, I can already hear bombs and artillery fire. I am scared. I am scared, but I will fight for our country. With love, Your Son.”
The soldier later writes: “Dear mom and dad, me and some of the guys were captured. A lot of my battalion were killed. We are being taken to a prisoner camp. I don’t know if you’ll get these letters, but I’ll keep trying to get more to you. I love you and I miss you and I hope I will see you again, some day. With love, Your Son.”
The band played softly as the final letter was read.
“Dear mom and dad, I keep writing these letters hoping that you will get them. I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. Please don’t cry for me. This is what soldiers do, they give the ultimate sacrifice. Don’t cry for us, just remember us. Please remember us. Remember. With love, Your Son.”
The combination of the band and letters “was very powerful,” said Elin Mayo after the performance. “I think I teared up when the narrator read every time.”
It was Fulton’s second time performing the voice-over. The first was at last week’s Campbell County High School football game against Thunder Basin High. He will continue to serve as the narrator for the marching band’s remaining performances.
“They did a great job,” he said Thursday. “It’s not every day you get a high school that will put a performance on like that.”
“I think it was one of our best performances,” added Allison Gingerich, a CCHS senior and the band’s drum major.
The band invited members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7756 to Thursday afternoon’s performance at the high school football field.
The reason for the unique marching show was so “we can give back to the veteran community for everything they do for us,” CCHS Band Director Steve Oakley said.
“It means a lot being a veteran,” Fulton said, adding it’s also important for youth to understand that.
The only “complaint” came from U.S. Navy veteran Bill Torrance, who said he wished the soldier would have come home alive. Otherwise “I thought it was great,” he said.
“With our country so divided right now about patriotism, I think it’s awesome that the students are learning that,” said CCHS parent Tracy Mathews.