A panel of experts says Ramaco Carbon must improve “deficiencies” in its proposed Brook Mine before the plan can proceed.
The company’s plan was sent back to state regulators after a Tuesday hearing before the Environmental Quality Council in Cheyenne.
The first proposed coal mine in Wyoming in more than three decades has been subject to a lengthy dispute. Some locals say the Brook Mine would affect local water wells and could exacerbate sinkholes in the region where historic mining weakened land stability.
Local landowners and a neighboring coal company have argued that Ramaco Carbon’s mine plan, a final proposal that must be approved by state regulators before a permit to mine coal can be obtained, was insufficient. State regulators, however, had deemed the plan complete.
The dispute led to a week-long hearing in May, when experts at the Department of Environmental Quality defended their decision. Lawyers for the Powder River Basin Resource Council and Big Horn Coal brought in their own experts, including an engineer who called the plan “wholly inadequate.” Ramaco has maintained that the state regulators were diligent in their approval process and has questioned the intent of those who would hold back development.
Members of the Environmental Quality Council, which hears contested cases, disagreed with the state’s decision in a four-one vote Tuesday. Two council members had recused themselves from due to potential conflicts of interest, including Megan Degenfelder, manager of public affairs for the Powder River Basin coal company Cloud Peak Energy.
Councilmember Nick Agopian was the sole dissenter for the day, saying he believed the plan was complete. He did criticize the company for not holding public meetings, a common complaint from the council.
“Doing business in Wyoming requires you to be a good neighbor,” he said. However, the law does not stipulate that the company must offers such engagement, he added.
Members echoed concerns about the plan brought by local landowners, including the lack of long-term responsibility to provide water to nearby homeowners after mining activity impacted their well water, a likelihood noted by state regulators. Others voiced concern about the lack of blasting limits, the increased risk that land could sink in the area and the lack of data collected by the company. These issues, most agreed, were solvable.
Bob LeResche, chairman of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said in a statement that the dispute with Ramaco had been an “uphill battle” for locals.
“Our members were subjected to a trial-like hearing with intimidating cross-examination from state and industry lawyers, and we are grateful that justice has been served,” he said of the EQC decision. “We will remain vigilant and continue our efforts to ensure that any future proposed mine meets fair standards to protect our water and our land and does not threaten our safety.”
A spokesman for the company could not be reached by press time.
Ramaco Carbon first proposed the Brook Mine in Sheridan County in 2014 but was immediately caught up in legal limbo. Big Horn Coal first fought the company regarding right of ways and historic leases.
The region in Sheridan was mined for coal in the early 1900s. The result of those years of underground mining has made the area north of Sheridan prone to subsidence, or large sinkholes. Locals trade in stories of burning coal seams, unearthed by accident and tricky to extinguish.
Though many local politicians see the company as an economic benefit to the region, and many residents have a history in the coal industry, Ramaco is not everyone’s idea of a good neighbor.
Part of that distrust comes from the company’s changing plans with the Brook Mine. The estimated 1 billion tons of coal that Ramaco procured years ago was originally going to be sold to the power market, like most of the state’s coal. But that business model became questionable as the coal industry faltered in recent years. Ramaco announced earlier this year that it would mine coal for carbon products. Additionally, it would build a coal research center and an industrial park adjacent to Brook Mine.
There’s been a fair amount of bad blood brewing since then as the disputed mine plan came before state regulators.
The company’s spokesman Bill Bissett, former president of the Kentucky Coal Association, called members of the Powder River Basin Resource Council “stupid hippies” in a recent Facebook post.
He later apologized for the comment, which he said he had intended to send as a private message rather than a public post. However, he acknowledged that it was unprofessional.
The company has linked up with a Wyoming nonprofit, the Western Research Institute in Laramie. The institute attracted a $3.7 million Department of Energy grant to research carbon fiber products in conjunction with a number of other research partners and Ramaco Carbon.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council criticized the grant, recalling other large coal research projects that have failed in Wyoming after millions of research dollars were allocated.
The group’s pushback triggered Bissett’s Facebook comment.
Misstatements by Ramaco regarding direct affiliation with the University of Wyoming were corrected by school officials, who said they are working with the Research Institute, not Ramaco. Two other groups Ramaco named as partners were unable to pinpoint who in their organizations had formed a public association with the coal research project.
The following statement was sent to the Star-Tribune by Ramaco officials after press time: “
"Ramaco Carbon noted that today the Wyoming Environmental Quality Commission was unable to reach a decision to allow the Brook mine permit to immediately move forward at this time," said CEO Randall Atkins. "We respectfully heard the EQC’s comments and will work, along with the Department of Environmental Quality, to rectify these concerns. We remain confident that, in the end, the Brook mine will receive the necessary mining approvals, as well as approvals to launch our research and other development efforts. We regard this overall project as a strong potential driver and benefit for the Sheridan and Wyoming economies and look forward to its future success.”