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Critics; Agency punts on mine permit, cuts public out

Several miles north of Sheridan on Interstate 90, the site of the proposed Brook coal mine sits on one side of the highway. On the other sits a collection of homes centered around the former townsite of Monarch.

Landowners across the highway from the proposed mine are nervous, and confused, by a company they say has left them in the dark and a permitting process they say is shutting them out.

The company’s CEO has pitched different business ideas in the press, while the mining application remains unchanged. Most recently, Ramaco LLC’s CEO Randall Atkins has reportedly proposed an R&D facility paired with an industrial park. Critics wonder whether this is another unproven Wyoming coal conversion project, tempting officials in an economically-strapped state.

“We just don’t want to get something started that’s going to leave a big mess behind for taxpayers to clean up,” said Gillian Monroe, a Sheridan resident and Powder River Basin Resource Council member. She uses recreation areas abutting the proposed mine where the Tongue River curls around the site, a popular spot for fishing, boating and hiking.

Anton Bocek lives near the proposed mine in a house he built in 1978 on land bought from his parents. He grew up there, and still irrigates his late parents’ fields, which he leases to hay growers.

Both Bocek and his father worked in the nearby Big Horn Coal mine. Bocek spent 14 years there, he said, working in the “tipple” where coal was sorted and loaded onto rail cars, driving a haul truck full of overburden, and working on a blasting crew setting explosives. He’s more than familiar with the earth-shaking explosions that loosen coal to be mined, and thus can envision the operation that could soon take place across the highway from him.

If the mine goes into operation, he worries about air pollution and runoff into Slater Creek and the Tongue River, which run by both the proposed mine and his land. He’s not opposed to a coal mine, he said, but he wants someone to sit down with him and his neighbors and give them some answers.

According to the permit application, mining would start away from the highway but would reach it by 2022.

Anton Bocek lives across the street from a proposed coal mine. A former miner himself, he worries about the impact it could have on his way of life. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“I don’t know how much it will cause a disturbance in our way of life,” Bocek said. Though along I-90, the area is quiet, tranquil. Bocek’s house, like most of his neighbors, is accessed by a dirt road leading off the frontage road.

Eventually, he said, the mining company has proposed running haul trucks along that frontage road. Bocek would like to know who will repair the inevitable degradation he knows they’ll cause.

The neighbors who live behind him, David and Mary Fisher, have hired an attorney to represent them in an upcoming hearing on the mine permit. They declined to comment for this article. Bocek said he didn’t want to spend the money on an attorney, and instead has thrown his lot in with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowner group that will represent his worries.

Because the mine company has not followed through on requests for a meeting with residents and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality declined requests for a sit-down, landowners who object to the mine or want clarification about the company’s plans have been left with no choice but seeking legal representation.

Some, but not all, of the more than a dozen people who have filed public comments questioning the mine permit application belong to the PRBRC. The landowner group says the DEQ failed to meet its obligations to the public when it refused them an “informal hearing” normally part of the application process.

DEQ Director Todd Parfitt declined landowner’s request for an informal conference, saying concerns about the mine are too complex to be settled informally. It will take a hearing before Wyoming’s seven-member Environmental Quality Council to sort it out and decide on the mine permit, he said.

Shannon Anderson, an attorney with the PRBRC, said Parfitt’s conclusion “punts” the final decision on the mine permit. Now the EQC, which she described as a body less accessible to the public and lacking the technical expertise of the DEQ, will decide the permit’s validity. A few landowners who commented on the mine permit, but are neither members of the PRBRC nor have hired an attorney, will be left out of the proceedings, Anderson said.

Other residents, who didn’t meet the deadlines to file a comment, but might have shown up at a public meeting to express their worries, also are shut out of the process. They aren’t parties in the EQC hearing, nor do they have written objections that can be treated as evidence.

“You expect the regulator agency to be open, welcome and responsive,” Anderson said. The DEQ hasn’t been so with the Brook Mine permit, she said.

“This is an exclusive process that favors industry,” Jill Morrison, a PRBRC organizer, added.

The EQC will decide whether the mine moves forward, whether additional protections are needed for the area abutting the Tongue River, and what the future holds for the people who have made their lives across the highway.

Residents feel left in the dark

Brook Collins, a PRBRC member, has spent much of her time and money making improvements to an old Catholic Church she owns. The church was built in 1923 and is near Bocek’s house. She lives in the structure, and is a fifth-generation area resident, according to a letter she sent the DEQ objecting to the permit and requesting an informal conference. If a future mine across the highway began blasting operations, she worries reverberations from the explosions could crack the stone foundations of the church. It could even crumble, she wrote.

Like Bocek, Collins spent a decade working in a coal mine, she said.

“As a coal miner, as a businesswoman, I’m not against coal,” she said in a phone interview. She even heats her house using a coal boiler, she said. However, she feels the permitting process has left residents with more questions than answers. Ramaco LLC, the company behind the mine permit, has been less than forthcoming, Collins said.

Ramaco CEO Randall Atkins has spoken frequently in the media about his plans for the mine — developing “value added” coal products on site, as opposed to selling the coal to utilities to burn. The company has not followed through on residents’ requests for a meeting, Collins, Bocek and other residents claim.

Ramaco did not respond to multiple voice messages asking for comment for this story. The company’s small Sheridan office suite was locked and empty when WyoFile visited at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

Collins wants the company to be “good neighbors,” she said, and to “share information about what’s going to be going on in our neighborhood and how that might impact us.”

On April 4, Atkins was interviewed on NPR. “The idea of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a typical thermal coal mine struck us as becoming increasingly problematic,” he said, given both economic forces and environmental regulations.

The window of Ramaco’s Sheridan office suite, which was closed on Thursday afternoon. Locals say the company has not been responsive to their request for a meeting about a proposed mine. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The company’s permit calls for a mining operation that starts with more than 500,000 tons of coal in year one, scaling up to two million tons a year. Atkins has since said that the company will not focus on selling coal in large quantities for electricity generation. Instead, he says Ramaco will build a research facility and industrial park to develop and produce new products out of coal from the mine. The proposed facilities would flank I-90, in what are currently two empty fields abutting the Tongue River, according to a company schematic. They would loom over the Kleenburn Recreation Area, an old open-pit coal mine that state and county entities reclaimed and turned into stocked lakes lined by hiking trails.

During the NPR interview, Atkins said the proposed mining method — where a giant drill digs into the ground and shakes coal loose onto a conveyor belt for removal — would need only a half dozen workers to operate.

Atkins promised that an industrial park “that will essentially use that coal to make products,” and a research center to “try and explore new uses from the carbon from coal to make products,” will together create several thousand jobs.

For Collins, the difference between Ramaco’s permit application and the business plan Atkins has been pitching in the media raise more questions. She’s concerned about the effect of mine blasting on her church, but doesn’t even know if blasting is still planned, she said, since it’s not clear how much coal Ramaco would need for the new plans.

She said she looked up carbon fibers, one of the potential products Atkins has suggested the company could make. Its production takes a lot of water, Collins said, and involves either the use of acid or the production of coal tar, which has thousands of constituents, many of which are carcinogenic.

“Where’s that additional water going to come from?” Collins asked. “And where’s it going to go anyway? And what are you going to do with that acid?”

This field could become the site of research facilities for Ramaco. The company says it’s looking to develop new uses for coal. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

In her letter asking for an informal conference Collins raised further questions. “We also know nothing about how operations will be organized so as to clearly understand how we may be effected [sic],” she wrote. “What light and noise pollution will we need to endure and from where? Where will the roads be located? What types of equipment will be operated on those roads? How will dust suppression be handled? Will there be conveyor belts, load-outs, crushers, or other equipment that will cause exposure to coal dust? What are our risks for silicosis, Black Lung, and other diseases?”

Like other residents who commented on the permit, Collins would have liked to ask those questions of the DEQ in an informal conference. State statute gives DEQ Director Parfitt the ability to approve or disapprove an informal conference, however, and he decided to send the permit to the EQC.

“The Director just did not feel that with the concerns being raised in those numbers that it would be worth anyone’s time at this point,” said Keith Guille, a spokesperson for the DEQ.

Guille said the company’s permit application is for the mining area. The research center and industrial park are on separate properties. They may have to go through their own permitting process, he said, but they aren’t part of the original mine permit application.

“It doesn’t mean that they don’t have other regulatory requirements,” he said. When evaluating the mine permit, it is not the DEQ’s job to evaluate the coal’s eventual destination or use, he said. “We don’t get into a business decision.”

A different permitting process

It’s been years since the state of Wyoming has issued a new mine permit. Peabody received one in 2009 for the School Creek mine, which eventually was lumped into the larger Northern Rochelle Antelope Mine. Most of the mines in the Powder River Basin, however, went through the permitting process during the 1970s and 80s.

The PRBRC argues the way the state is handling the Brook Mine deviates from tradition for permitting, to the detriment of landowners who may have participated in the process.

Traditionally, a mine permit application is filed, and the DEQ engages in a back and forth with the company as agency specialists review it. Once the application is considered complete, the public is consulted. The agency responds to the comments then either approves or disapproves the permit. It’s only when someone appeals the DEQ’s ruling that the case goes to the Environmental Quality Council, traditionally, Guille said.

Not so in this case. The DEQ, in deciding not to hold an informal conference and not ruling on the Brook Mine permit, has left the decision in the hands of the EQC, which serves as an independent review board on environmental matters for the state. The EQC will decide the matter in May, after a hearing where several parties will all play a part. There will be representation from Ramaco, the DEQ, a separate coal company, Big Horn Coal, that disputes Ramaco’s rights to mine the property, the PRBRC, and Mary and David Fisher, the local couple who hired an attorney.

Guille said the DEQ’s role in the hearing will be to defend its technical review of the application. The agency does not have a stance for the EQC on whether the permit should be approved, he said. That decision will rest with the EQC. “We will be providing information regarding our decision that this application is technically complete,” Guille said.

Anderson, a PRBRC attorney, isn’t sure the council is fully aware of the task in front of it. “The staff,” Anderson said, referring to the DEQ, “that’s spent two and a half years reviewing the permitting process isn’t going to make the decision.”

Anderson said she can not recall another request for an informal conference ever being denied.

She worries the seven EQC members, who are appointed by the governor, are ill suited to make the final decision on a mine permit that covers hydrology, reclamation, production estimates and blasting plans, she said. The EQC has three Republicans, three Democrats and one independent member. The chairman, David Bagley, is a UW chemical engineering professor. The rest of the committee consists of a real estate and crude-to-rail developer, two ranchers, a spokesman for Cloud Peak Energy, a government affairs representative for oil giant Devon Energy and the former director of Wyoming’s Office of Administrative hearings.

A “punt”

Anderson believes the choice to forego the informal conference and not issue a ruling was just an effort by the DEQ to “punt” the decision to a less scientific body. Normally, the EQC reviews appeals of a ruling by the DEQ. For example, Anderson said, the DEQ may approve a project, but that decision can be appealed to the EQC by someone who believes it fails to satisfactorily address concerns such as air pollution.

Guille had a similar assessment of the EQC’s role and said the hearing in May will be a departure from tradition for the EQC.

“From our standpoint [the public’s] concerns could not be resolved, and we are moving forward now,” he said. He believes the DEQ will be able to address landowners’ concerns and public comments at the hearing. They’ll do so by responding to Shannon Anderson, who is testifying on behalf of PRBRC members, and the Fishers, who aren’t members of the PRBRC but have inserted themselves as a party in the proceedings.

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The Fishers’ initial complaint echoed many of the concerns raised by Brook Collins and other objectors. They believe the mine permit was incomplete because it did not sufficiently address concerns ranging from soil subsidence to drawdown of water wells. They contend the application did not properly address air, light and noise pollution, potential contamination of the the Tongue River, or degradation of a nearby recreation area.

They also contend the company hasn’t treated them with respect, accusing surveyors of trespassing on their property. “For some landowners in this area, Ramaco has already demonstrated a disregard for the ‘Wyoming way’ of conducting business,” the complaint says.

Bocek echoed that sentiment. “If we’re gonna have a strong-arm company,” he said,” “we don’t need ‘em out here.”

Anderson said that though complaints will be raised during the hearing, many objectors have been deprived of their right to stand up before an agency of their state and simply ask questions. To participate in the EQC hearing, residents have to enroll as witnesses. They will be subject to cross-examination from the state’s attorneys or the coal company’s lawyers. She’s worried many of the original objectors will find the process intimidating and be reluctant to participate, she said.

Part of Anderson’s job in May will be to remind the council that this time it is not addressing an appeal, but is deciding the validity of the mining permit itself, she said. It’s become the council’s role to judge the environmental impact and the concerns of local landowners against the potential economic benefits of the coal mine.

“I’m worried the council isn’t going to understand its real role here,” Anderson said, “so we’re just going to have to do our best to help them understand their role and why that matters.”

An old and a young fisherman walk along the banks of the Tongue River in the Kleenburn Recreation Area. If Ramaco gets its permit, the company could soon begin mining on the other side of the stream. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

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Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at [email protected]

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