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Wyoming's newest proposed coal mine faces more public scrutiny during virtual conference

Wyoming's newest proposed coal mine faces more public scrutiny during virtual conference

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Tongue River

The Tongue River below Tongue River Dam. Tension looms over a company's bid restart operations at an old coal mining site in the Tongue River Valley.

Public scrutiny has long trailed a company’s bid to build a new coal mine in northern Wyoming. For nearly a decade, coal technology firm Ramaco Carbon has fought to revive mining at a site just outside Sheridan to feed its future research facilities. But hiccups with a state permit application and opposition from several nearby landowners have hindered the project from breaking ground.

In March, the project appeared to be inching closer to reality when Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality declared the company’s revised permit application to mine “technically complete.” The announcement opened up a 60-day public comment period. Over 100 comments flooded the agency, both for and against the new mine.

The Department of Environmental Quality’s director Todd Parfitt holds the authority to approve or reject the permit application for Ramaco Carbon’s dream coal mine. But before rendering a decision, state regulators hosted an informal conference online on the matter Wednesday, inviting both the company and public to speak.

The tenor of the daylong, virtual conference was starkly divided between opposing sides and underscored the tension surrounding the battle to bring the newest coal mine to fruition in Wyoming.

Brook Mining Company, a subsidiary of Ramaco, bought mineral rights in the Tongue River Valley near Sheridan to restart operations at an old coal mine to feed proximate research facilities.

For as long as the coal firm has battled to secure a green light to mine, Tongue River Valley residents living near the proposed mine site have been expressing their alarm over the potential environmental impacts and future financial liabilities associated with the Brook Mine for the county and state.

Those concerns were on full display during Wednesday’s conference. In the morning, several Tongue River Valley residents spoke to their concerns over the potential disruption to the air, land and water, as well as recreational use and public access in the historic region of the state, if the mine was approved.

“The proposed Brook Mine boundary overlaps and is directly adjacent to these popular recreational areas,” said Bill Bensel, a resident who lives 2.6 miles south of the proposed mine. “Blasting, hauling and the high intensity industrial activity associated with the mining project will compromise public safety, reduce water quality and degrade the high quality hunting, fishing and other recreational experiences that are so valued by the public.”

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a grassroots group representing landowners, called in a mining expert with four decades of experience to assess the company’s subsidence analysis of the land where mining would occur. The risk for subsidence, or the buckling and caving of ground during mining, was not properly addressed in the application, according to the subsidence scientist Gennaro Marino.

The landowners group also invited hydrology expert Mike Wireman to testify on the risks the mine posed to ground and surface water supplies in the area. He called the baseline water testing and hydrology analysis deficient in the application. “There is huge uncertainty here as to impacts to these water resources,” Wireman said.

But in the afternoon, Brook Mining Company and an entourage of legal representatives, engineers and mining specialists vehemently defended the permit application and expressed an unwavering confidence in the project.

“Some objectors are asking for a 100 percent guarantee that no hydrological, subsidence or blasting difficulties will ever arise,” said Tom Sansonetti, an attorney representing the company. “Now, that is an impossible standard to meet and it is not the standard embedded in the Wyoming statutes. And unfortunately, as we have also heard today from some other objectors, no amount of permit review will ever be sufficient. Those objectors just want no more coal mining, period.”

According to Sansonetti, the Brook Mine revised permit application addressed “each and every one” of the deficiencies identified by Wyoming’s Environmental Quality Council in 2017, when another version of the application was filed but failed.

The project has also been reviewed by two outside engineering companies, Sansonetti added. Testimony from the company defended the integrity of the research behind the permit application.

“We have heard and responded to your concerns,” testified Jeff Barron, a licensed engineer in Wyoming and Montana. He prepared both the original and amended permit application for the proposed mine. He responded to other experts’ concerns, emphasizing the company has conducted significant groundwater research to understand the hydrologic effects of mining, developed a subsidence control plan and revised mining plans in sensitive areas.

Ramaco Carbon wants to erect several facilities to mine, research and transform Powder River Basin coal, not necessarily into electricity, but instead into commercial products, like carbon fiber and graphene. Though not present during Wednesday’s informal conference, dozens of state officials, business owners and industry leaders expressed support for the new mine in Wyoming through written public comments.

Several starts and stops

Ramaco’s permit application underwent roughly a dozen technical reviews by state environmental regulators since the company submitted its original permit application in 2014. Several years ago, the Department of Environmental Quality concluded the Brook Mining Company’s permit had no deficiencies. 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 an array of expert testimony and public feedback about the proposed Brook Mine, the council declined to approve the company’s permit application. Ramaco Carbon had 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 DEQ denied the company the permit to mine.

In response, the Brook Mining Company took the issue to court. Last year, the Laramie County District Court ruled in favor of the coal company. Judge Catherine Rogers remanded, or sent back, the application to the Department of Environmental Quality for a final review by Parfitt, the Department of Environmental Quality director.

The judge concluded state environmental regulators erred when rejecting the company’s permit application to mine. 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.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council has long taken issue with state regulator’s approach to processing the coal firm’s permit application, alleging a “procedural deficiency” for rounds eight through 12 of the permit review.

“We have ongoing concerns that since Brook (Mining Company) is still challenging the (Environmental Quality Council) order before the Wyoming Supreme Court, the authority of that order, as it applies to the permit application, before the agency remains in question,” said Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the group. “And we ask the Department of Environmental Quality to clarify the agency’s and the applicant’s position on the validity of the EQC order on the decision of the permit application.”

Despite the pushback from local residents, Sansonetti, Ramaco Carbon’s attorney, remains confident in the company’s coal-driven vision for Wyoming.

“The company deserves an opportunity to succeed in developing its innovative firms,” Sansonetti said. “It’s Ramaco’s risk to take.”

Clarification: Ramaco Carbon bought the mineral rights at the site of its proposed mine, but does not own the surface property. This story has been updated accordingly.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry @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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