The change-over, including computer, payroll and other business systems, went well, as officials from Bisti Fuels have been in the area for over a year to ensure a smooth transition.

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FARMINGTON — Earlier this month, The Navajo Transitional Energy Company, a limited liability company owned by the Navajo Nation, announced that Bisti Fuels Company, LLC, a subsidiary of the North American Coal Corporation, has taken the reins from BHP Billiton to become the new contract operator for the Navajo Mine.

New management of the mine by Bisti Fuels took effect on Jan. 1.

NTEC officials sat down earlier this month at their Farmington office to discuss the transition and what it means for the future of the mine, which is located on the Navajo Reservation, southwest of Farmington.

“NTEC was created in 2013 by the Navajo Nation, and its sole mission was to purchase the Navajo Mine from BHP Billiton,” said NTEC spokesman Erny Zah. “NTEC owned the mine since 2013, and BHP Billiton financed it until we paid off the note with them in July. We’re the managers of the mine, and the mining contractors, Bisti Fuels, essentially work for us.”

The Navajo Mine, which employs 341 people, is the sole supplier of coal to the Four Corners Power Plant, which is one of the largest coal-fired generating stations in the nation.

“In 2015 we searched for a contract miner and we needed a known operator, so we signed with North American Coal to be our contract mine operator beginning Jan. 1 of this year,” said Clark Moseley, NTEC’s CEO.

Clark said that the change-over, including computer, payroll and other business systems, went well, as officials from Bisti Fuels have been in the area for more than a year to ensure a smooth transition, and no layoffs occurred as a result of the change.

Bisti Fuels has also been examining mine operations for the past year and is planning some changes.

“There’s going to be some different equipment involved — including an upgrade of railroad equipment — and a different mining method that will allow for a more selective way to extract the coal (will be implemented),” said Clark.

Zah said, rail upgrades include routine maintenance for both the engines and the track.

"The Navajo Mine currently hauls coal from the mine to the power plant via an electrified rail system," he said. "NTEC plans to disable and remove the catenary system (an overhead wire that provides power) and is in the process of purchasing two re-built 4,000 horsepower diesel locomotives to propel the rail cars."

Zah added that because the seams of coal are layered between other geological formations, the newer method will allow miners to be more selective in what they extract from the seam extraction.

"This will create a more efficient mining method," he said.

As for financing the new equipment investments, Zah said NTEC will be footing the bill.

"The financing we secured in August of last year allows us to financially work like most other companies that maintain a profit," he said.

Active Navajo Mine operations began in 1963, the same year the Four Corners Power Plant began generating electricity, according to the NTEC website. Since that time it has become one of the largest surface mining operations in the United States and plays a large role in meeting the energy needs of the Southwest.

Clark said the new agreement will guarantee continued operation of the mine and power plant for another fifteen years.

“This is good for the community,” he said. “It saved jobs, saved the power plant operation, and is good for the (Navajo) Nation as they receive taxes and royalties off of the mine and power plant operation.”

A new U.S. administration coming in that is pro-coal is also encouraging for NTEC and the mine, said Steve Grey, NTEC’s governmental and external affairs director.

“But it’s not only Trump, it’s also the president of the Navajo Nation who is making sure new jobs are preserved – that’s another thing we think is positive,” said Grey.

Zah said another goal for the mine, power plant and agencies that administer them will involve identifying renewable, clean energy options, such as potential geothermal and solar projects.

“Our primary role is to provide coal to the power plant, but we’re also looking at other aspects for the future of energy,” Zah said.

NTEC plans to continue to be involved in projects that help the community as it moves forward into the new year, Grey said.

“We have a fund set up to benefit nonprofits, and we’ve initiated scholarships to chapter houses to encourage students to study science, engineering and technology,” he said. “We’ve also identified a lot of Navajo vendors (that NTEC hopes to do business with), and we’ve reached out to San Juan College to see if they can give a hand to these Navajo vendors through the Small Business Development Center.”

Zah added that by the end of January, a Tribal Energy Management Institute will be launched thanks to a collaborative effort between tribal leaders, NTEC and San Juan College. The program brings students together on a monthly basis to discuss topics related to developing energy on tribal land.

The future is looking bright for the mine and power plant operations, said Clark.

“We think things are going very well, and we’re excited for 2017.”

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621. 

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