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Tribal Affairs

Montana Extends Spring Creek Mine Permit, Questions Over Tribal Immunity Remain

A statue of a miner
Phil Guest
Flickr CC BY 2.0
Montana reached an agreement with Navajo Transitional Energy Company to keep Spring Creek Mine temporarily open on Jan. 7.

Montana officials say a Navajo Nation company may continue operating a coal mine for two more months amid negotiations over the terms of a state permit.

The extension announced Jan. 7 keeps about 300 miners at work at the Spring Creek mine near Decker.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Navajo Transitional Energy Company have been negotiating how the department might be able to take the company to court to enforce environmental laws despite tribal sovereignty.

“Really the crux of the sovereign immunity issue is we’re not sure exactly how to address the potential sovereign immunity of a tribal entity off of tribal land,” said Rebecca Harbage, public policy director with the DEQ.

The company's purchase of Spring Creek and two Wyoming mines in a 2019 bankruptcy sale made it the third-biggest U.S. coal company.

The Spring Creek Mine briefly shut down in October due to a dispute over the extent to which the tribally-owned company is subject to state environmental law.