Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize speaks on Thursday as BHP Billiton and the Navajo Transitional Energy Company close the sale of the Navajo Mine
Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize speaks on Thursday as BHP Billiton and the Navajo Transitional Energy Company close the sale of the Navajo Mine to NTEC and celebrate 50 years of operation at area 3 of Navajo Mine in Tiis Tsoh Sikaad. (Megan Farmer — The Daily Times)

TIIS TSOH SIKAAD — Two companies took the stage at Navajo Mine on Thursday, one to celebrate longevity and the other to celebrate a new beginning.

More than 250 mine workers and local leaders assembled to celebrate BHP Billiton's 50th anniversary of owning and operating Navajo Mine, while the mine's new owner, the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, established its preliminary direction.

Steven Gunderson, chairman of NTEC's board of directors, said the mine will continue regular operations because of a three-year management agreement with BHP Billiton.

"We expect very little change on how the mine is managed on a day-to-day basis," he said during an assembly that highlighted speeches from Navajo Mine executives and elected leaders from the Navajo tribe.

Gunderson said board members are scheduled to meet this weekend to establish long-term goals for the mine.

NTEC recently finalized its purchase of the mine from BHP Billiton. BHP will continue to manage the mine until the end of 2016.

Sam Woods, interim general manager for the mine, said NTEC's acquisition of the mine is a first step that could lead to more energy development for the tribally owned company.

Woods, the former energy adviser for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, estimated the Navajo Nation has about $3.5 trillion worth of untapped minerals and energy, including coal, oil and gas, and the potential development of renewable energy, such as wind and solar.

"We definitely could use NTEC to develop, manage and protect these natural resources," Woods said.

Leonard Palmer Sr., 49, a specialist safety at Navajo Mine, said he was happy with the new direction of the mine.

"I'm really happy the Navajo Nation purchased the mine. We have the ability to maintain the business where it needs to be at," he said, adding that he has been working at the mine for 29 years.

Some have criticized the mine purchase, saying that Navajo Nation funds were used to acquire the business.

Mine rescue team operator Herb Charley, left, and operator Susie Benally laugh on Thursday before BHP Billiton and the Navajo Transitional Energy Company
Mine rescue team operator Herb Charley, left, and operator Susie Benally laugh on Thursday before BHP Billiton and the Navajo Transitional Energy Company close the sale of the Navajo Mine to NTEC and celebrate 50 years of operation at area 3 of Navajo Mine. (Megan Farmer — The Daily Times)

Gunderson said tribal money wasn't used to purchase the mine. He said the mine is financed with revenue, after operating costs are deducted. Operating costs include taxes and royalties to the Navajo Nation and other entities.

The purchase price for the mine was $85 million, and revenues are expected to pay for the mine over the next three years.

President Shelly during his speech acknowledged coal is a "dirty word" and announced his intentions to pursue revised plans for the Desert Rock Power Plant. The coal-fired power plant project was proposed in 2005, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency denied air quality permits for the plant, stopping any development.

Shelly said his office is looking into coal sequestration technology and pursuing revamped plans for the power plant.

Norman Begaye, president of Nenahnezad Chapter, said he is looking forward to new technology that will make coal cleaner to use.

Pat Risner, BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal asset president, thanked the workers at the mine after Norman Benally, BHP's community relations coordinator, detailed the history of the mine from its opening in 1962.

Risner called the sale of Navajo Mine to the tribe "the right thing to do" and commended the workers who have worked at the mine since its beginning.

"Those who have come before us have worked to secure opportunities that are before us today," he said.

Erny Zah is The Daily Times business editor. He can be reached at 505-564-4638 and ezah@daily-times.com. Follow him @ernyzah on Twitter