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Panel moves Cloud Peak coal lease forward

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Federal and state officials have given initial approval to a Wyoming company's application to lease 198 million tons of coal adjacent to a southeastern Montana mine.

Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Beverly Gorney said a five-member government panel voted unanimously Wednesday for the agency to begin processing the application from Cloud Peak Energy.

Environmental groups wanted the application delayed. They pointed to recent concerns raised by federal investigators that the government could be losing tens of millions of dollars by undervaluing coal from public lands.

The BLM has pledged improvements to the leasing program. Agency officials say it will be four to five years before a value is given to the coal leases sought by Cloud Peak. The leases are next to the Spring Creek Mine along the Montana-Wyoming border.