Facebook Twitter

LAWMAKER FLAYS `FIRE SALE’ OF COAL-RICH WYOMING LAND

SHARE LAWMAKER FLAYS `FIRE SALE’ OF COAL-RICH WYOMING LAND

The Interior Department is pressing ahead with a trade of coal-rich Wyoming land for a pristine view in Grand Teton National Park, despite criticism that the taxpayers will get cheated on the deal.

Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., chairman of a House Government Operations subcommittee investigating the swap, said the government is giving away too much coal at the "fire sale" price of 2.7 cents a ton.In exchange, the government would receive a ban on development of the largest tract of private land in the Wyoming national park. Both the rights to the coal and the park land were valued at $5.6 million.

Synar's environment subcommittee, which was reviewing the exchange at a hearing Thursday, released documents concluding that taxpayers could lose up to $180 million in the transaction because the coal was undervalued.

Steve Goldstein, chief spokesman for Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., said he expects the exchange to be finalized in the next few weeks despite the objections.

He said the valuation of the coal was correct and based not only on "real value but the intrinsic value" of prohibiting development on 1,100 acres on the park.

The 207 million tons of coal is under a 2,500-acre tract near Sheridan, Wyo. The park land is the JY Ranch, owned by businessman-conservationist Laurance S. Rockefeller.

Rockefeller in 1987 donated the "conservation easement" - basically a scenic view that must remain undeveloped - to the Sloan-Kettering Memorial Institute for Cancer Research in New York City. The institute would obtain rights to the coal in the trade.

Sloan-Kettering "plans to sell the coal interest and use the proceeds immediately to advance its cancer research programs," Bruce A. Bugbee, a representative of the institute, said in written testimony for Thursday's hearing.

Rockefeller would retain ownership of the land and the right to construct one additional residence at a specified location.

In other testimony submitted for Thursday's hearing, David C. O'Neal, assistant interior secretary for land and minerals management, said the deal "appears to be an outstanding opportunity to protect Teton National Park from future development while avoiding federal costs associated with acquisition to prevent potential development."

Synar said Wednesday that it "strains credulity" that the department valued the 207 million tons of coal at 2.7 cents a ton.

"At a time of staggering federal deficits, the Department of the Interior should abandon any thought of disposing of publicly owned assets at fire sale prices," he said.

A major issue in valuing the coal was whether it would be mined or left in the ground.