A Wyoming coal company moved one step closer to realizing its goal: opening up the first state-permitted coal mine in nearly half a century.
In an unprecedented decision, Laramie County District Court ruled in favor of the Sheridan-based company Ramaco Carbon.
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.
Ramaco has big plans for Wyoming’s coal country.
The company plans to build a coal campus in northern Wyoming — replete with a research complex and a manufacturing hub. On top of the ambitious proposal, Brook Mining Company, a subsidiary of Ramaco, bought land near Sheridan to resurrect coal mining operations to feed the research facilities. The company aims to transition away from thermal coal generation and find other uses for coal beyond electricity generation.
But the Brook Mine has hit a series of hurdles since the company submitted its permit application in 2014.
Though the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality initially stated the Brook Mining Company’s permit had no “deficiencies” and was “technically adequate,” 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 Department of Environmental Quality denied the company a permit to mine.
The Brook Mining Company took the issue to court. The Friday court decision adds another wrinkle to the fight over the contentious mine permit. Judge Catherine Rogers remanded, or sent back, the application to the Department of Environmental Quality for a final review by Director Todd Parfitt.
“The bottom line is this: it is the director of the (Department of Environmental Quality) that has the final authority to decide whether or not a permit should be granted or not,” Tom Sansonetti, the attorney for Ramaco, told the Star-Tribune.
Launched in 1973, the Environmental Quality Council is tasked with “issu(ing) findings of fact and a decision on the (mine permit) application,” according to a statute in the Environmental Quality Act.
But Friday’s ruling may complicate the council’s future clout. The case is also unprecedented and could reach beyond just the Brooke Mine.
Bridget Hill, Wyoming’s attorney general, did not return requests for comment.
For Ramaco, the ruling couldn’t come sooner.
“There is a bottom line to this: while this affects in particular my client, Brook Mine Company, the fact is that since this appeal concerned an issue of first impression, the ruling is going to affect all future permit applications,” Sansonetti, Ramaco’s attorney, explained. “This is basically the judge providing a road map for the (Department of Environmental Quality) and future applicants as to how you get a new business in the energy spectrum started in Wyoming.”
But the proposed mine near Sheridan has also generated significant resistance from surrounding landowners, conservationists and a competing coal company since the plan’s infancy.
Though lawmakers have touted the economic benefits of Ramaco’s coal facilities for the state, several Tongue River Valley residents have expressed concerns over the potential environmental impacts and future financial liabilities for the county and state.
“We are disappointed in this decision, and are reviewing our options,” said Joan Tellez, a landowner whose family has lived for five generations in the Tongue River Valley, near the site slated to become the Brook Mine. Tellez also serves as a board member for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group.
“Powder River (Basin Resource Council) has remained engaged with (the Department of Environmental Quality) throughout this process, and we remain committed to ensuring that the deficiencies in Ramaco’s coal mine permit regarding groundwater and hydrology, subsidence and blasting are thoroughly addressed and that landowners and the Tongue River Valley are protected,” said Tellez in a statement.
In the meantime, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality continues to consider Ramaco’s revised permit application, according to Keith Guille, spokesman at the DEQ.
“We anticipate working with the other parties to ascertain whether anyone will exercise their right of appeal before our agency makes a decision regarding the timing of future actions,” Guille said.
The permit application is undergoing its eleventh round of technical review.