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Coal tech company's bid to mine clears major hurdle
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Coal tech company's bid to mine clears major hurdle

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Brook Mine

The potential site of Brook Mine is shown in 2015, just north of Sheridan. Wyoming regulators informed Ramaco Carbon last week that its application to revive mining at the site near Sheridan is technically complete.

A coal technology firm with big plans to open up Wyoming’s first new coal mine in decades cleared another major hurdle to obtain a permit, according to a Monday announcement.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality informed Ramaco Carbon last week its application to revive mining at a site near Sheridan is technically complete. The permit application underwent roughly a dozen technical reviews by state environmental regulators since the company submitted its original permit application in 2014.

But the company’s fight to secure a green light to mine isn’t over.

The revised application will be available for 60 days of public comment starting Tuesday, after which the environmental quality department director will make an ultimate decision on the surface coal mining permit.

“Given the fact that (Wyoming) is the largest coal producing state in the country, I think this is an important message that Wyoming can stand at the vanguard of promoting the use of coal in a variety of different forms for the nation,” said Randall Atkins, Ramaco Carbon’s chairman and CEO, in response to the state’s decision to render the application complete. “This is probably the most stringent coal mining permit — both from the standpoint of review and the conditions imposed on it — frankly of any mining operation in the U.S., that I am aware of.”

Brook Mining Company, a subsidiary of Ramaco, bought land near Sheridan to restart operations at a coal mine to feed proximate research facilities. Ramaco wants to develop commercial uses for coal beyond electricity generation, like carbon fiber and graphene.

Atkins anticipates the mine could start producing coal as soon as this summer if the permit is officially approved. According to Department of Environmental Quality, the company asked for a permit to mine 250,000 tons of coal per year for five years. Atkins says he hopes to eventually ramp up coal production to several million tons annually at the mine.

A seven-year battle

This isn’t the first time Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality has come to consider Ramaco’s permit application to mine complete. Several years ago, the state agency concluded the Brook Mining Company’s permit had no “deficiencies” and was “technically adequate. But the Environmental Quality Council, an independent regulatory body, concluded otherwise.

The council held a contested case hearing on the mine in 2017. After considering a deluge of expert testimony and public concerns about the proposed Brook Mine, the Council declined to approve the Brook Mine permit application. The company failed to properly investigate how hydrology, subsidence and blasting could affect surrounding communities and land, the seven-member regulatory body concluded. In turn, the director of the state denied the company the permit to mine.

In response, the Brook Mining Company took the issue to court. In October, the Laramie County District Court ruled in favor of the Sheridan-based company Ramaco Carbon. Judge Catherine Rogers remanded, or sent back, the application to the Department of Environmental Quality for a final review by Director Todd Parfitt.

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The judge concluded state environmental regulators erred when rejecting the company’s permit application to mine. If upheld, the ruling could upend the Environmental Quality Council‘s authority to help determine the fate of mining activity in Wyoming.

The Council cannot “make the substantive, technical assessment required to approve a permit application,” the court concluded. Instead, the ultimate authority over a permit application resides with the director of the Department of Environmental Quality.

In the midst of this legal battle, state regulators were completing the 11th review of the company’s permit, with an eye to addressing the outstanding issues brought up by the Council.

“All the concerns that Environmental Quality Council raised have been addressed and (the revised permit) meets all of our rules and regulations,” said Keith Guille, a spokesman for Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. “That’s why it’s suitable for public comment and review. We will also be allowing electronic public comments as well on this.”

What’s at stake?

Many Tongue River Valley residents living near the proposed mine site have expressed concerns over the potential environmental impacts and future financial liabilities associated with the Brook Mine for the county and state.

“Ramaco has made a lot of promises about the number of people they would employ and how their permit meets the highest standards, but none of this has turned out to be true,” Joan Tellez, a landowner and Powder River Basin Resource Council board member, said in a statement. “They have not met with the impacted landowners and they have not addressed our concerns.”

John and Vanessa Buyok, landowners in Tongue River Valley, echoed these fears. The Buyoks allege even the company’s most recent permit still fails to address potential damage to their water well and the alluvial valley floor, or subsidence issues — land vulnerable to sinking or caving — on properties surrounding the proposed mine site.

“We have both worked in the mining and regulatory industry for years,” they said in a statement over email. “Every company that we know of has bent over backwards to make sure that concerns of impacted landowners—their neighbors—have been addressed. Ramaco has been a bad neighbor to the people in the Tongue River Valley from the beginning. Affected landowners had to work to try to ensure the permit is done right and addresses all the impacts of the proposed coal mine on our lives and on the recreation in this area.”

The company defended its revised application, asserting it had undergone several stringent reviews by technical experts.

“This application features some of the most stringent and extensive environmental protections of any coal mine permit ever considered in Wyoming,” said Jeff Barron, an engineer consulted for the Brook Mine. “The fact it has passed through so many levels of review should help ensure the local community that all issues have been considered, and they will have an operation they can feel good about.”

Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality may also host an informal discussion on the permit in May before rendering a decision, if requested.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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