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More than 75 employees laid off as Decker coal mine owner files for bankruptcy
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DECKER MINE

More than 75 employees laid off as Decker coal mine owner files for bankruptcy

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The owner of the Decker coal mine filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Wednesday night and laid off nearly half of its workforce at the facility in Montana.

The Decker coal mine is located in Big Horn County just north of Wyoming’s border. Many of the employees live in Sheridan and commute the short distance to the coalfield.

The parent company, Lighthouse Resources Inc., filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Wednesday in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware. The spokesman for the company told the Star-Tribune 76 employees were laid off that same day. But the firm plans to continue operations at the Decker mine at a significantly reduced capacity.

“In light of the challenging market conditions and other impacts on our business from COVID-19, we have been required to reduce costs and reorganize our business resulting in the reduction of our workforce in Montana,” Everett King, Lighthouse Resource’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We are deeply saddened by this impact on individuals, families, and communities.”

“We have no alternative,” King added.

Decker Coal Company, a subsidiary of Lighthouse Resources, furloughed workers in May and again in September. But a period of uncertainty has once again struck miners and their families.

Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan, called the news “extremely devastating.”

“It’s a stark reminder that we must increase our efforts to economically diversify our state economy to provide good-paying, blue-collar jobs while simultaneously fighting on behalf of fossil fuel industries in Wyoming,” Western said.

The mine produced just over 709,000 tons of coal and employed an average of 174 workers in the third quarter of this year, according to U.S. Mining Safety and Health Administration data. Production during this year’s third quarter is down nearly 42% compared to the same period in 2019.

The bankruptcy comes on the heels of several waves of mass layoffs in the Powder River Basin’s coal mines, as the pandemic continues to seize the country and its economy.

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At least 500 coal miners have been laid off in the basin since the pandemic reached Wyoming and Montana. In addition, at least 300 coal miners have been furloughed. Rail company BNSF laid off 130 workers this year due to the decline in coal, and several workers at the state’s trona mines have also been furloughed.

“Unfortunately the timing could not be worse. Wyoming families are already challenged by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gov. Mark Gordon said in a statement. “This announcement so close to the holiday season, just adds more pressure to the workers and their families of the Decker Mine. I will continue to follow the proceedings closely and have directed our Department of Workforce Services to provide whatever assistance is available to displaced workers.”

“This bankruptcy underscores our need to use technology such as carbon capture on coal-fired plants to slow the trend of just making the decision to stop burning fossil fuels,” he added. “I will continue our efforts in this area, as well as our support for efforts to develop other uses for coal.”

Lighthouse Resources holds a joint venture interest in the Black Butte coal mine in Wyoming, but Black Butte has not filed for bankruptcy and the facility will continue their operations uninterrupted.

However, the bankruptcy will affect the Millennium Bulk Terminals in Washington state, where any existing operations will be reduced in scale. The company said in a news release it would seek out buyers interested in acquiring rights to the unrealized coal export terminal.

Attorneys in Montana and Wyoming filed a lawsuit against Washington at the beginning of the year over the terminal, alleging the state unconstitutionally blocked the development of a proposed coal export facility that could have transported Powder River Basin coal to global markets. A spokesman for the governor said he did not anticipate the bankruptcy having an impact on the lawsuit.

Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group, called the proposed export terminal “another albatross around Lighthouse Resources’ neck,” due to the ongoing declines in demand for coal.

But the attorney is particularly concerned about the prospects for the reclamation, or cleanup, of the mine site in Montana.

“Are they going to have enough money to finish reclamation?” she asked. “Are those employees going to be hired back on?”

Lighthouse Resources filed for Chapter 11 with over $256 million in secured debt. According to court filings, Lighthouse Resources owes Big Horn County in Montana over $6.9 million, the Montana Department of Revenue more than $4.4 million and the U.S. Department of Natural Resources Revenue about $3.3 million, in addition to hundreds of creditors.

Photos: A look at coal country through the photos of a railroad engineer

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry and the environment at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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