The fate of Wyoming’s first new coal mine in 50 years is on hold yet again as state regulators and landowners wrangle over a mining permit.
The Environmental Quality Council, a seven-person group that decides contested environmental cases, announced Tuesday that it would stay a hearing about Ramaco’s Brook Mine set for next week.
At issue is the Lexington, Kentucky-based company’s mining plan. State regulators approved the plan, but the Powder River Basin Resource Council argues the plan is vague on issues such as production and reclamation. They are also concerned about the long-term commitment the company will have in the area.
After Tuesday’s delay, state regulators and local landowners must argue, first in written briefs, then in oral arguments, as to whether Ramaco’s permit to mine should even go before the EQC.
Companies must obtain a permit to mine from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, and the viability of that contract is largely based on a mine plan, which lays out future production, employment and reclamation.
The landowner group Powder River Basin Resource Council contested Ramaco’s mine plan in late January and requested an informal conference with state regulators at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ denied the request for an informal conference and sent the dispute straight to the EQC, prompting complaints of due process from the land owner advocate group.
For DEQ it was a pragmatic decision based on the complexity of the PRBRC’s claims against Ramaco, said Keith Guille, spokesman for Wyoming DEQ.
“These were things that we didn’t feel could be resolved in an informal conference,” Guille said. “So why spend more time? Let’s just move it to the EQC and have that council hear all parties and their cases.”
For the PRBRC, the right to an informal conference is tantamount. Those who could not travel to Cheyenne for the hearing, nor navigate the official proceedings, will have a better chance to have their voices heard, said Shannon Anderson, legal counsel for the landowners group.
The ability for the public to voice concerns in is a crucial right in these types of cases, she said.
However, access is not the first concern for the EQC.
What the EQC needs to know is whether the DEQ prematurely sent the case straight to the EQC. The problem is a procedural one, said Jim Ruby, for the EQC.
“Until we get a decision as to whether or not this is truly poised for a contested case before the council, all of that is secondary right now,” he said.
When the DEQ sent the case to the Environmental Quality Council, it was filed like any other contested case. But by DEQ standards an informal conference must be held within 20 days of the end of public comment period.
To cover its bases, the EQC scheduled the hearing within that time frame, while it navigated the state and department regulations in the somewhat unique case.
Written briefs to the EQC are due by Feb. 16. The oral hearing will be by telecast as well as in Cheyenne on Feb. 21.
What all of this means for Ramaco is one more delay to beginning mining.
If successful in obtaining a permit, the company will be the first to actively mine in Sheridan County since the Big Horn Coal Company ceased operations in the ‘80’s.
Brook would be the first new coal mine in the state in half a century, and the current dispute follows a long legal fight over property rights.
Ramaco’s CEO Randall Atkins did not respond to requests for comment.
Ramaco successfully argued that it held mineral rights per a 1954 deed. Lighthouse Resources, the parent company of Big Horn Coal, claimed surface rights from 1983 and threatened to block access to the site until it had approved the mine and reclamation plan. A local rancher sought damages.