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Wyoming: Federal opposition to Alpha coal reclamation deal 'political theater'

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality has accusedfederal officials charged with regulating coal mine reclamation of "politicaltheater" over its criticismsof a deal struck between Wyoming and AlphaNatural Resources Inc.

In a recent letter, the U.S. Office of Surface MiningReclamation and Enforcement described Wyoming regulators' response to Alphafalling out of compliance with federal law on self-bonding obligations as "arbitrary,capricious, or an abuse of discretion." The letter was critical ofa deal that regulators had struck with Alpha over its reclamation as the company worksto restructure out ofbankruptcy.

Kyle Wendtland, administrator for the land quality divisionat WYDEQ, wrote a July 15 letter to the deputy director of the Denverfield division of OSMRE requesting an informal review of the determinationregarding the deal.

"In evaluating the substance of OSMRE's determination,it is apparent from the timing that this action by OSMRE is political in natureand serves little if any purpose in resolving this complex matter that involvesthe very livelihood of the miners in Wyoming," the letter states.

Wendtland wrote that OSMRE had remained silent throughout thenegotiation process between Wyoming and Alpha — only emerging to second-guessDEQ's determination once the deal was done. He wrote that OSMRE only offeredits "unreasonable and erroneous criticism" of the settlement afterits actions would be too late to catch responsibility for "the manyadverse consequences a different settlement would have wrought had it chosen tocome forward."

Wendtland insisted DEQ's actions will allow Alpha'ssuccessor, Contura Energy Inc., to continue to operate two large Wyoming coalmines without the public incurring the costs of reclamation. He claims the dealalso saved tax revenues and jobs in the state.

Wendtland's letter also claims OSMRE's determination exceededthe agency's authority because it does not have a legal basis forsecond-guessing the state's discretionary decisions. The state is also criticalof the agency's decision to compare its agreement to that of a similardeal in WestVirginia, citing different risk profiles as Alpha's Wyoming assets are amongthe company's most valuable.