Big Horn County News: Cloud Peak hosts cultural tour of proposed mining sites

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By Andrew Turck, Big Horn County News – Cloud Peak Energy, a firm operating pit mines in the Powder River Basin, hosted a tour of the Upper Youngs Creek area for executive and legislative members of the Crow Tribe last Thursday. During the excursion – via trucks over bumpy dirt and scoria roads – they located Native American cultural sites including an eagle pit to the north and Benson’s Butte to the south.

Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote, who participated in the tour, said he was pleased to know that many of the cultural sites were located away from proposed mining areas. He had seen the areas before, but it was as a hunter, not a tribal leader.

Youngs Creek consists of 38,800 acres of grass, hills and sagebrush located on the Northern Powder River Basin in the southeastern part of the Crow Reservation. The area is situated within less than 10 miles of the company’s Spring Creek Mine, Youngs Creek Mining Company and CX Ranch. It also borders the Decker mine, which was purchased from Cloud Peak by Ambre Energy Limited in September 2014.

As explained by Emerson Bull Chief, director for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, the eagle pit – marked by a circle of rocks – was a spot where a Native American hunter would hide until an eagle landed, before reaching up and capturing the bird by its legs. Benson’s Butte, he said, was an occupational site, meaning that it has signs of past habitation by Native Americans including chipped obsidian and fine-grained chert that indicate the construction of arrowheads.

Tribal members including Vice Chairman Dana Wilson spent a significant portion of their time on Benson’s Butte examining pieces of arrowhead on the ground. When the group decided to leave, Wilson – who has a degree in geology – took a bit longer than the others.

“I could stay here all day,” he said.

In addition, participants saw buffalo jump and fasting areas.

Mike Shober, senior project engineer for Cloud Peak, said the main purpose of the tour was to show the company’s commitment to respecting areas of cultural significance to Native American tribes.

The company intends to avoid mining near these locations by relocating access roads and drill sites and, according to Bull Chief, they’ve been doing a good job thus far.

“Cloud Peak has been very receptive in following the THPO regulations,” Bull Chief said. “They’ve actually been doing very well as far as cultural resources are concerned.”

Cloud Peak, through its subsidiary Big Metal Coal Company, has an option-to-lease agreement with the tribe that allows the company to explore the Northern Powder River Basin for up to 1.4 billion tons of in-place coal. The agreement gives them the potential to lease from the tribe any designated land in the basin the company wants to use for the purposes of mining.

According to Shober, survey teams from Cloud Peak and THPO’s archaeological division have spent an estimated 4,500 hours searching the exploratory area for possible cultural sites since the agreement was signed in January 2013.

In exchange, Cloud Peak is providing payments to the tribe adding up to $10 million total from 2013-18. In addition, if they exercise the option to lease, Cloud Peak will pay the tribe $0.08 to $0.15 per ton, depending on the lease and inflation rates. Finally, the company will give tribal members hiring preference for mining jobs.

Cloud Peak CEO Colin Marshall said the company was currently looking for the right spots to mine, though it would take a “frustratingly long” process to start. He was nonetheless optimistic.

“We’re not going to mine this coal for a few years, everything takes a long time,” he said, “but we believe it’s a very viable project and could bring great prosperity to the Crow Tribe.”

Old Coyote, at the conclusion of the tour, said it was the tribe’s “hope and goal” to move forward and create jobs and revenue.

“I think we’re halfway there,” he said. “The steps are moving in the way we planned it.”