Coal slump not impacting Navajo Mine, officials say

Noel Lyn Smith
A drag line operates Wednesday at the Dixon Pit area of the Navajo Mine in Nenahnezad..

NENAHNEZAD — Despite a nationwide slowdown in coal production and increased competition from inexpensive natural gas, the owners and the operators of Navajo Mine say they expect to continue doing business as usual.

Bisti Fuels Co., a subsidiary of the North American Coal Corp., has been operating the open-pit mine since Jan. 1, when it completed the transition in management from previous owners and operators, BHP Billiton.

The Navajo Transitional Energy Co., an enterprise of the Navajo Nation, purchased the mine and its equipment from BHP Billiton in 2013 and picked Bisti Fuels to run it.

Among the plans to sustain coal mining operations, NTEC and Bisti Fuels are investing in new equipment and upgrading hardware.

The $10 million endeavor includes purchasing two diesel locomotives, a dragline bucket, a coal hauling truck, a dozer, a surface miner and 25 other new vehicles.

Bisti Fuels Business Manager Andy Hawkins said the locomotives will replace the current engines that operate by an overhead wire system, called a catenary system, this summer.

Joshua Kantor, managing supervisor of drilling and blasting, points towards the Dixon Pit, on Wednesday after explosives where used at the Navajo Mine in Nenahnezad..

The locomotives are used to deliver coal from the mine's stockpile to the Four Corners Power Plant, the mine's sole customer.

"We have invested very heavily already in the first four months in capital and we plan to continue that for the rest of the year," Hawkins said.

Bisti Fuels is also eyeing improvements to the two draglines that operate in the Dixon Pit and Gilmore Pit.

Later this year, the Marion 8750 Dragline will undergo $6 million in upgrades, which include its electrical and control systems.

The change in control system will make operating the excavating machine easier, resulting in more efficient swing time for the dragline bucket, Hawkins said. The changes mean less wear on the equipment reducing maintenance and replacement costs.

The improvements are estimated to take 45 days and are scheduled for the fall, to coincide with scheduled maintenance outages at the power plant, he added.

Approximately 350 employees work at the mine and 17 individuals have been hired since January, Hawkins said.

Joshua Kantor, managing supervisor of drilling and blasting looks over the Dixon Pit, Wednesday at the Navajo Mine in Nenahnezad..

Hawkins said 60 percent of the salaried workforce and 93 percent of the hourly workforce are Native American.

On average, Bisti Fuels supplies about $35 million annually to the tribe's general fund through taxes, royalties and fees, he said.

The company is also working on a plan to offer public tours of the mine.

"The mine belongs to the nation and we're more than happy to have people come out and see what we do," Hawkins said adding such tours are available at other locations operated by North American Coal.

NTEC spokesman Erny Zah said the tours promotes transparency.

"It shows what we want to do moving forward. We want to make this open for community members, chapters and schools," Zah said.

NTEC Chief Operating Officer Tim Fagley said since Bisti Fuels has been in place, NTEC is continuing to learn about its management style.

"And (ensuring) that they are operating in a function that we accept. That's responsible and sustainable," Fagley said.

The tribal enterprise is also doing its part to spread word about the mine by reaching out to communities on the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation.

"This lets them know that there's another coal mine operation and we're a stable entity right now," Zah said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.