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Montana's Decker coal mine to lay off 75 workers

Associated Press Modified: November 16, 2012 at 8:30 pm •  Published: November 16, 2012

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Up To 75 employees of Montana's Decker Coal Mine will be laid off from the surface mine near the Wyoming border in mid-January, managers said Friday.

A spokesman for mine operator Ambre Energy North America attributed the layoffs to "ongoing expense management activities," but offered no details. It is co-owned by Ambre-subsidiary KCP Inc. and Western Minerals LLC, a subsidiary of Cloud Peak Energy.

About 160 people work at the mine located in the coal-rich Powder River Basin, an area along the Montana-Wyoming border that produces more coal than any other region in the U.S. The mine is located in Big Horn County, although many of its workers come from the Sheridan, Wyo. area.

Ambre spokesman Brian Gard said in a statement that the layoffs were unrelated to a legal dispute between the owners over whether to expand production.

Coal production at Decker dropped sharply over the last few years, from 7 million tons in 2006 to 3 million tons last year, federal mining records show. The mine reported a net loss of $21.1 million last year and had projected a $11.9 million loss for 2012.

Western Minerals has alleged Ambre wanted to mine more coal with an eye toward exporting the fuel to overseas markets, particularly in Asia. The legal dispute emerged in July, when Western Minerals filed a lawsuit that said the mine's plan called for an end to all production when its last customer contract ends in 2013.

Coal was once the dominant fuel for electricity generation in the U.S. But domestic demand has been flagging over the past several years due to cheap natural gas, tighter rules on pollution from coal-burning power plants and an aggressive legal campaign against the industry by environmentalists. Coal companies see exports as a way to turn around that decline.

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