- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Federal mining regulators have given Wyoming officials more time to explain why they have approved less-than-full bonding for two coal companies that have filed for bankruptcy.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement originally gave the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality 10 days to respond to notices the federal agency sent Jan. 21.

On Monday, the federal agency extended its deadline to Feb. 22 for Arch Coal’s bonding and until Feb. 12 for Alpha Natural Resources’ bonding. Each company operates large open-pit mines in northeast Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Both companies have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection - Bristol, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources last summer followed by St. Louis-based Arch Coal last month.

State officials sought an extension to March 1 to provide more information about its approval of both companies’ bonding arrangements with the state. They are working to respond in time under the new deadline, Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Keith Guille said Wednesday.

Bonding helps ensure cleanup of industrial sites. Wyoming is among a handful of states that have allowed major coal mining companies to self-bond, or open up their books and provide regular financial reassurances to regulators they are able to cover the cost of totally filling in and reclaiming any mines that might close.

In return, those companies aren’t required to post conventional bond. Self-bonding liability for coal companies in Wyoming totals $2.2 billion.

Last year, Wyoming officials reached an agreement that would make the state a priority creditor to receive $61 million out of $411 million in required bonding for Alpha’s mines. A bankruptcy judge has approved the deal, but it has faced scrutiny by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowner environmental group based in Sheridan.

The group also has questioned Wyoming’s approval of Arch’s self-bonding late last year, when the company’s bankruptcy filing already was anticipated.

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