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Agreement extended, NTEC mine stays open
Montana, coal producer say they’re making progress on limited sovereign immunity waiver

Another agreement between Navajo Transitional Energy Co. and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality will keep the Spring Creek mine in Big Horn County, Montana, open for at least another 65 days.

An initial 75-day interim waiver of sovereign immunity between the state and Navajo Nation-backed coal mine operator was set to expire Wednesday.

Negotiations between the entities have been productive.

“I’d say, generally, we’re making headway and I think we’ll have some sort of solution by (Wednesday),” said Rebecca Harbage, a spokeswoman for the Montana DEQ.

“We’re well aware that the deadline is rapidly approaching,” she said last week. “We don’t think we’ll have a shutdown like we did in October.”

NTEC bought the Spring Creek mine — along with the Antelope and Cordero Rojo mines in Campbell County — from bankrupt Powder River Basin coal operator Cloud Peak Energy.

Navajo Transitional Energy Co. bought the mine with a financial package that include a $15.7 million deposit paid at the sale closing, agreeing to pay about $94 million in back and unpaid taxes and fees, assuming a $40 million promissory note and pay up to $20 million in post-petition debts accrued during the bankruptcy process.

The company also has agreed to pay a 15-cent per ton royalty for five years for coal produced at the Antelope and Spring Creek mines, and the same royalty on coal produced over 10 million tons at Cordero Rojo.

When NTEC took over as the official operator of the times in late October without an agreement with Montana, the mine was shut down abruptly and remained closed for two days while the company and state hammered out the 75-day temporary agreement.

Since that time, negotiations have been positive, Harbage said.

The sticking point is how much of NTEC’s tribal immunity as a Native corporation will be waived so the state can ensure the company will be responsible for reclaiming mined land and following state and federal environmental regulations, Harbage said.

The sides aren’t far apart, she said.

“We’re really looking to expand (the immunity) a little bit,” Harbage said. “The first waiver, we were under a lot of pressure and the mine was shut down, but there are other agencies in the state that have concerns.”

Some of those include the Departments of Labor, Natural Resources and Revenue, she said, adding that any limited waiver of sovereign immunity “will be limited to the operation of the mine.”

NTEC also said in a prepared statement that it’s optimistic a permanent deal will be done and is pleased to have an extension that allows mining to continue.

“We know Montana understands the value this mine provides to the region, including 200 family wage jobs, approximately $30 million in Montana state taxes and state land lease payments that fund education,” Tres Tipton, NTEC chief marketing and operations officer, said in the statement. “Continuing our existing agreement allows for the uninterrupted production of high-quality coal and is in the best interest of the region, or employees and our customers.”

Before accepting NTEC as a contractor responsible for day-to-day operations at Spring Creek, DEQ requires the limited waiver to issue a permit to mine.

“We are committed to continuing our conversations with NTEC to ensure that NTEC’s affiliation with the Navajo Nation is duly recognized and respected, while also ensuring that the state-issued permits for the mine are fully enforceable, on par with any other coal mine operating under state laws,” said DEQ director Shaun McGrath. “This is a unique and complex issue that requires us to be deliberate in our approach to avoid any unintended consequences. We appreciate NTEC’s commitment to working through these issues with us.”

As for the Wyoming mines, the state doesn’t need NTEC to waive sovereign immunity as long as it’s operating as a subcontractor, said Keith Guille, spokesman for the Wyoming DEQ.

“From our standpoint, they are operating with a license to mine, but the permit is still held by Cloud Peak,” he said.

Like Montana, NTEC will need to come to an agreement with the state to get the permit to mine in its name. For both states, that also means securing the federal coal leases attached to the mines and securing more than $400 million in reclamation obligations, about $300 million for Antelope and Cordero Rojo and more than $108 million for Spring Creek.

New computer game system gets BOCES students up and active

It was the long, cold and blizzard-like conditions of Wyoming’s winters and the needs of her students that sparked a recreational therapist’s idea for an alternative that would encourage movement and physical activity at the Northeast Wyoming BOCES school in Gillette.

The Powder River Children’s Center is made up of more than 30 special-needs students ages 5-21 and includes 12 school districts as members, including Campbell County, as well as Sheridan, Johnson, Niobrara, Crook, Converse, Goshen and Weston counties.

Regular school and residential programs are available for the Board of Cooperative Educational Services students, which first began operations in 1979 and is located at 410 N. Miller Ave.

BOCES recreational therapist, Carla Dittus, went online to find something that could meet the school’s needs, especially for those suffering from cabin fever during the long, cold Wyoming winters.

Interactive playground

She found a Canadian company that offers video games for schools and encourages participants to move while also working on math, reading, hand-eye coordination, spelling, music, dancing and even basketball skills. It’s called LU Interactive Playground.

Dittus went to the BOCES board and staff, and quickly found support for her idea, including from Kaylee Arthur, the school’s adaptive physical exercise teacher.

But this isn’t one of those video game setups you can play on your TV at home.

The screen, sound and lighting system takes up half a wall in the BOCES gym. Components hang from the ceiling.

The center has become the first school in the county, Wyoming and perhaps the region to offer the LU Interactive Playground, a high-tech program controlled by a small, hand-held computer device.

It doesn’t take long to see the benefits of the program, which Dittus hoped would get the students moving.

The 13 games available range from puzzles where students throw balls at different colored lights and objects flashing on the huge screen, to target practice and even karaoke.

“I thought it would be just perfect for our guys,” Dittus said, and the board quickly agreed.

The benefits

Arthur, an adaptive physical exercise teacher, has learned to run the games.

“I think it’s great. The kids seem to enjoy it,” she said. “They like target and the boys really like the relay races. (That program) keeps track of time.”

The kids enjoy it so much much they ask if they can go play games at some point nearly every day.

“It’s paying off with the physical part,” Arthur said. “It’s really moving those who don’t move all the time. I kind of see a difference for them.”

The BOCES staff didn’t quite realize at first how large the system is. The lighting system alone weighs 275 pounds and the wall projection screen measures 30 feet by 30 feet.

“We saw how big the equipment was when it all came in and it was huge,” Dittus said.

Students enjoy it

The students may not realize that the purpose is to get them moving, but that is one of the things they most enjoy. Some expressed how much they enjoyed playing in the gym the day before the Christmas holiday break started.

The session had something of a school dance atmosphere to it in the darkened gym, 1,000-watt speakers and the changing light colors and patterns.

“I like to move. Yeah, it’s fun,” said Brayden Silzell, 16.

“I like the puzzle one,” added a smiling Nyra Jenkins, 12.

“I like the games and I really like the videos and YouTube and the dunk game,” said Cashe Hayden, 18, when he stopped playing for a quick second. “I like the different levels (of skill).”

Jasmine Wikinson, 13, agreed.

“I do like it because it gets me moving and stuff,” she said after hugging Dittus.

The games will be updated every six months and Dittus noted that after a month, the staff still hadn’t had a chance to go on the website and expand the games available. That didn’t matter to the students, though.

The program costs a hefty $18,000, but others on the BOCES board could imagine the benefits as well.

So BOCES used $7,000 of a Title 1 grant and about $11,000 it had earned in fundraisers to pay for it. Along the way, staff and students have discovered an eye-opening alternative for Wyoming’s long winters.

Traveling Vietnam War memorial coming back to Gillette

A traveling Vietnam War memorial is returning to Gillette this year.

A replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. will be in Gillette on Sept. 9-13. It was last in Gillette in 2010.

Paul Woessner of the American Legion told Campbell County Commissioners Tuesday that planning already has begun for the event. The American Veterans Traveling Tribute, which constructed the wall and takes it around the country, will bring it to Campbell County.

A motorcycle caravan will escort the wall from Rozet to Gillette. Woessner said he’s already contacted a hundred people, and in 2010, more than 400 motorcycles took part in the escort. He estimated that more than 42,000 people came to see the wall then.

The 360-foot long wall is an 80% scale replica of the memorial in Washington, D.C. There also will be kiosks that feature veterans who were killed in other wars. It will be placed at the Cam-plex Park arboretum.

The total cost of the event will be $25,000, Woessner said. He asked the commissioners if they were willing to help pay for a luncheon on Sept. 11. Each year, the fire department has a ceremony and luncheon to remember those who were lost on 9/11. It usually has 25 to 100 people, Woessner said, but in 2010, the ceremony was held at the wall and 5,000 people attended. Then, it cost $4,000 to feed them, thanks to donations from the community.

Woessner estimates that it will cost $6,000 to feed 5,000 people this time around, and he asked if the county would be willing to split the cost with the city. He added that Mayor Louise Carter-King said it was a good idea, but he had yet to go to the full city council.

The commissioners were supportive of the idea, but they did not take action Tuesday.

Commissioner Rusty Bell said that when the community was surveyed in 2018 on what it wanted the Optional 1% Sales Tax to be spent on, veterans’ services was high on the list.

“We can certainly add some money from 1%, either through our budget or however it works best,” he said.

Bell also recommended Woessner talk to the Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau to market it as a regional event to draw more people.