Hundreds of Wyoming coal miners came a step closer to going back to work.

In a motion filed early Thursday, attorneys for Blackjewel LLC asked a judge to approve Contura Energy, Inc. as a 'stalking horse bidder' as the company moves to sell off its assets and avoid a costly Chapter 7 liquidation. Having failed to secure debtor-in-possession financing to continue as a going concern, Blackjewel now looks to sell its holdings for as much money as possible and repay its creditors.

Federal bankruptcy judge Frank Volk approved the motion Friday morning.

For an attorney representing Campbell County, Contura being the stalking horse bidder is akin to the fox guarding the hen house.

Jeffrey Liesemer said Campbell County stands to lose millions in back taxes if the deal goes through. Contura and Blackjewel have unpaid taxes with the county dating back to 2015, Liesemer said.

"The county will be left with nothing. We will be left holding the bag," Liesemer said. "These taxes fund schools. They pay teachers. We're not trying to protect a profit share."

Although Contura transferred two Wyoming mines to Blackjewel in 2017, Contura is still financially responsible to the state for the costs of reclamation, which totals nearly $250 million.

The ruling means that Blackjewel will accept bids on its assets until 5 p.m. EDT on July 31. If necessary, an auction would be held the next day.

Contura will assume millions of dollars in liabilities, including payroll-related payments for employees returning to work in Wyoming.

Contura will fund the sale process. If another company purchases Blackjewel, Contura will get the $8.1 million used to fund the sale back.

"There are so many unknowns at this point," Volk said. "This appears at the present time to be the only path forward."

If there are no objections to the sale, workers could be back at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in a few weeks.