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Wesmoreland coal

The Westmoreland coal mines near Colstrip are seen from above in May 2013.

There are more than $5 million in claims filed in Montana against Westmoreland Coal, as the owner of three Montana mines works its way through bankruptcy.

County governments, fallen miners and even dentists are among those trying to collect from the coal company, which disclosed $1.4 billion in debt when it filed for bankruptcy in October.

Westmoreland, the sixth-largest coal company in the United States, operates the Absaloka, Rosebud and Savage mines in Montana and the Kemmerer mine in Wyoming.

The Colorado-based company continues to pay some bills, including its property taxes. Big Horn (Montana) County Treasurer Jody Guptill said taxes on the Absaloka Mine for the first half of the year were paid at November’s end. The treasurer had filed a claim for $498,933, half of which was due last month.

Westmoreland is one of the biggest taxpayers in southeast Montana and a crucial employer in Big Horn County, where the Absaloka mine employs about 150 people. The mine supplies coal to Minnesota’s Sherburne County Generating Station, which will retire one coal-burning unit in four years and a second in seven.

Westmoreland’s property tax bill in Rosebud County is $904,083 this year. Half of the money was paid in November, the county treasurer said. The rest is due in the spring. The largest share of the county’s tax base consists of the Rosebud mine and Colstrip power plant, which burns Westmoreland coal.

The coal company is scheduled to sell the Rosebud mine at auction next month, though it is asking a U.S. bankruptcy court in Texas for more time so it can find buyers and settle pension disputes. The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents Westmoreland miners in Montana and New Mexico, rejected an amended pension plan last week. The pensions and benefits are unsecured debts.

Treasure County has a smaller claim for $3,815.

The largest Montana claim comes from the family of Michael Ramsey, a Rosebud Mine employee killed in 2017 when his coal truck fell 150 feet from the high wall. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration found that Rosebud workers were unsafely backing up to the wall’s edge to bump waste rock into a pit. The incident occurred because Westmoreland, which operates the mine as Western Energy, didn’t ensure its trucks kept a safe distance from the ledge. Ramsey’s family filed a $3 million claim against Westmoreland in bankruptcy court.

There are several claims filed by First Interstate Bank and two by Billings dentists for smaller amounts. Utility company Montana Dakota Utilities filed a $136,852 claim for electricity.

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