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FARMINGTON — As many as 25 workers at BHP Billiton's Farmington office will be out of a job by April, as BHP Billiton proceeds with plans for its departure from San Juan County in 2017, company officials said Wednesday.

The coal company, which opened its Farmington office three decades ago but recently sold the two mines it operates in this area, is currently in a multi-year effort to move the majority of the support services workforce it currently houses at its office on Arrington Street out of Farmington. The office employs about 130 people and up to 25 of those positions will be eliminated in six months, company officials said.

"Our leadership team worked aggressively to retain as many of these positions as possible during the transition," said Dan Ware, BHP Billiton spokesman.

Pat Risner, president of BHP's New Mexico coal assets, said that to pave the way for BHP Billiton's departure, the company's two coal mines about 15 miles west of Farmington needed to be sold with the goal of ensuring continued operation of both.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Risner said 100 or so support staff who work in various administrative positions like human resources, finance, legal and accounting have been assured work at one of the company's two mines, Navajo Mine in Fruitland or San Juan Mine in Waterflow.

BHP Billiton wants to ensure as many jobs as possible at the two mines are protected, Risner said.

The workforce shuffle is one of the primary goals — along with sustaining mine operations and revenue — of the transitional process that began about three years ago, he said.

BHP Billiton sold one of its two mining operations, Navajo Mine, to Navajo Transitional Energy Company, a tribal enterprise created by the Navajo Nation, in 2013 for $85 million. Navajo Mine employs about 450 workers and is the sole supplier of coal to nearby Four Corners Power Plant.

In July, BHP Billiton sold San Juan Mine, which also employs about 450 people and supplies coal to the San Juan Generating Station, to Westmoreland Coal Company — which is headquartered in Englewood, Colo.

Risner said the jobs that will be eliminated in six months were not a result of cost cutting.

"Our objective has been to sustain the operations at the mines and the jobs they provide," Risner said. "Our goal of sustainability extends to the Farmington area, to protect jobs and revenue streams to the city, county and state. The actions we have taken to sustain the future of the mines shows how deeply vested and invested we are in the community."

According to an Oct. 23 press release, Westmoreland has also made some personnel changes.

Westmoreland CEO Keith E. Alessi announced — three months after the company's purchase of San Juan Mine — that he would retire, though he will stay on with the company as "CEO emeritus," lending "strategic support" to the company's board and management.

Westmoreland CFO Kevin A. Paprzycki was approved by the company's board of directors to take over as CEO starting Jan. 1. Company officials were not available for comment on Wednesday.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621. 

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