BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A pair of coal companies have struck a deal on a disputed Montana mine that both sides said could boost Asian exports through the West Coast, but won't prevent up to 75 layoffs in the short term.
The deal calls for Australian-based Ambre Energy to gain full control of the Decker mine near the Wyoming border for $57 million. The company wants to ramp up production and ship fuel overseas through a pair of Columbia River ports.
Cloud Peak Energy would sell its stake in Decker and receive 1,200 acres of nearby land and rail easements to help develop a new Wyoming mine.
Cloud Peak also gets an option to move 5 million tons of coal annually through the expanded Millennium Bulk Terminal port proposed in Washington state, which is co-owned by Ambre and Arch Coal Inc.
The Decker deal is expected to close in early 2013.
"I think that it's really a good deal for both sides," said Ambre spokeswoman Liz Fuller. "For us, this is a really great step in the direction of being able to export coal."
Those export plans are being fiercely fought by conservation groups and others in Montana, Oregon and Washington. They warn that a spike in coal train traffic could increase rail congestion and disrupt communities across the Pacific Northwest and that burning coal will worsen climate change.
Coal companies and their backers contend the claims are overstated. The industry is counting on exports as a lifeline in the face of a domestic market that's on the decline as many coal-burning power plants are shut down.
Cloud Peak and Ambre currently each have a 50 percent stake in the 162-worker Decker mine. They had been fighting over control of the operation through dueling federal lawsuits.
The newly announced deal includes a settlement of those claims and provides for dismissal of pending litigation, the companies said.
Despite the uncertain outlook for U.S. coal consumption, Ambre hopes to continue selling Decker's coal into the domestic market and also is exploring possibilities for a coal-to-liquid fuels plant, Fuller said.
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