The Brook mine, a proposed coal mine in Sheridan County, has stumbled through red tape and landowner and competitor objections for years now. But the rejection of the coal firm’s proposed mining plan by an independent council operating under the umbrella of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality kicked a bee’s nest in the Wyoming Legislature early this year.
Some lawmakers in the Wyoming House of Representatives felt that the board had gone off the rails by siding with landowners over the department.
“There was a ruling in the last year or so that sent a really negative vibe throughout the mining sector in particular that maybe Wyoming isn’t open for business,” Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, said in February about the council’s decision.
Lawmakers like Miller and Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, argued that the Environmental Quality Council’s funding in year two of the two-year budget should be cut until a review had been conducted, with a possibility of absorbing the independent council into the Department of Environmental Quality.
A controversial decision
The foundation for the lawmaker complaints was laid in September 2017, when the Environmental Quality Council — a seven-member board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Wyoming Senate — sided with a landowners group in objecting to Ramaco Coal’s mine plan. The plan had been deemed adequate by the Department of Environmental Quality, a designation that says the company had complied with the state’s law in putting together a plan to mine coal in Sheridan County. Landowners raised a number of concerns, as did the last coal firm to mine in the area, Big Horn Coal. The dispute went before the council in a series of multi-day hearings that ended in the landowners’ favor.
The plan was inadequate, the council decided, reversing the Department of Environmental Quality’s take and inviting the company to rework its plan and try again. Ramaco made the rounds objecting to the decision, appealing to the governor’s office and the courts.
Lawmakers step in
Lawmakers heard the coal company’s complaints. Burkhardt acknowledged that the proposed review of the Environmental Quality Council was meant to send a message.
“Yeah, we’re making a statement here,” he said in February. “Right the ship and sail along the straight line.”
Objectors to the review and funding cut said it was punitive, retribution for the council’s decision against the coal industry.
Rep. Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, whose husband is a member of the Environmental Quality Council, said the move would damage the council’s role as an independent reviewer of state decisions for both industry and private citizens.
“I can assure you, they are the only commonsense buffer between your average-day Joe who runs a garbage bus or a gravel pit and government overreach,” she said in the House debate.
The mandate for a report was kept, the funding cut dispensed with by the Senate.
The Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Quality Council reported to lawmakers recently as requested.
Their takeaway was that council’s staffing of two employees, separate from the department, was adequate and that the council probably needs a bit more money to do its job.