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Navajo Mine say they expect to continue doing business as usual. Wochit

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FRUITLAND — Workers at Navajo Mine are trying to catch up on reclamation work while also redoing some previous reclamation projects.

Navajo Transitional Energy Company, which owns the mine, contracts with Bisti Fuels — a subsidiary of North American Coal Corporation — for operations of the mine.

Since 2017, NTEC has spent millions of dollars on equipment and Bisti Fuels has hired nearly 100 employees to focus on reclamation at the mine. The goal is to reclaim areas immediately after mining finishes in those parts and to finish by 2030. The mine has not fallen behind the requirements for reclamation, however workers have a lot of work to do before they can reach the 2030 goal. 

Senior Reclamation Engineer Shawn Smith said crews will need to move between 100 million and 120 million yards of dirt in the upcoming decade to meet the 2030 goal.

Currently, crews are filling in pits that were left open when Arizona Public Service Company was considering placing fly ash in them prior to reclamation. That practice is currently done at the nearby San Juan Mine. Ultimately, APS chose a different solution for the fly ash and those pits remained open at the mine.

Reclamation crews are also redoing decades old reclamation work at the Mason Pit because the previous techniques were not working. Smith said erosion at the Mason Pit was making it hard for Navajo Mine to meet the requirements of its discharge permits.

Lawsuit: Environmental groups appeal quashed by federal courtThe original reclamation of the Mason Pit involved building a large, terraced hill. The pit was filled in and seeds were scattered on the hill in 1985. Then, in 1993, seeds were scattered once again.

Generally, a decade after the reclamation is completed it is released from federal jurisdiction. Mason Pit has not been under jurisdiction since 2004. 

Smith said since 2004 the terraces have begun filling with sediment and erosion has become a problem.

“This isn’t reclamation we are required to do,” said Andy Hawkins, community engagement manager for Bisti Fuels.  

Now the crews have designed a contoured landscape that includes winding channels rather than straight channels for water to run through. The flowing contours are designed to reduce the amount of erosion.

As part of new reclamation at Mason Pit, crews also relocated and improved the Table Mesa Road, which is used by community members.

The crews are working in three pits while mining is currently occurring in the Dixon and Gilmore pits, about 15 miles south of where mining first began in the 1960s. The pits are named after families that live or graze sheep in the area.

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By 2030, NTEC and Bisti Fuels hope to be reclaiming areas at the edge of the Gilmore pit.

The future of the Navajo Mine relies on the future of the Four Corners Power Plant, which could close in 2031. However, if the power plant remains open, miners will continue to extract coal moving south from the power plant. The reclamation crews would then follow the mining operations, filling in pits and planting native seeds.

In the end, the mine will eventually become a grazing area for livestock and wildlife. While much of the landscape prior to mining was badlands, crews are reclaiming the pits to make them ideal for grazing.

2016 recognition: NTEC, BHP to be honored for reclamation work

In one area, the crews created a riparian wetland that now houses a beaver as well as porcupines, badgers and raccoons. Environmental Specialist Trevor Harvey said the beaver surprised mine workers when it showed up earlier this year. Harvey said the beaver indicates that the ecosystem is healthy.

“This is a pretty rich area for wildlife,” Harvey said.

The area was reclaimed while BHP Billiton Mine Management Co. was operating the mine. Both NTEC and BHP Billiton received the 2016 Western Regional Excellence in Surface Coal Mine Reclamation award from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement for the reclamation work at that site, known as Chinde.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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