Coal workers in Montana are out of a job until a Navajo-owned company and the state settle a dispute over the extent to which the Tribe is subject to state environmental law.
On Wednesday, the tribally-owned Navajo Transitional Energy Company acquired the largest mine in Montana, Spring Creek Mine, outside of Decker. On Thursday, it sent workers home.
That’s because the company is in a dispute with the state over whether it should waive its sovereign immunity, a move that could open the Tribe to environmental lawsuits.
Rebecca Harbage, public policy director at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, says the agency respects tribal nations and their subsidiaries.
“We need to ensure that when any company is operating in the state of Montana, that whoever it is, is able to comply with our environmental regulations,” Harbage says.
The company says it will do everything in its power to operate according to state law but cannot agree to a full waiver of sovereign immunity.
Erny Zah is the communications director for NTEC.
“We just want to make sure we come to a good agreement with the state of Montana. We understand that there are concerns and we want to address those in a productive manner,” Zah says.
Earlier this year, a federal court ruled that the Navajo company was immune from suits because of its status as a tribal entity.
Tribal nations are subject to federal laws but are independent from state control on tribal land.
One point of dispute: This mine isn’t on tribal land.
Last week, DEQ entered negotiations with the company to establish an agreed-upon waiver of sovereign immunity. Then the agency issued a deficiency letter Wednesday night, saying it wasn’t able to accept the company as a new contractor because it never received its waiver for sovereign immunity. DEQ ordered the company to shut its doors indefinitely until the parties agree upon a waiver.
The Navajo company also took possession of two mines in Wyoming Wednesday, both of which continue to operate.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report For America corps member