The battle over permitting of Wyoming’s first new coal mine in decades resumed before regulators Wednesday with opposing sides alternately claiming the proposal is environmentally sound or a “slick campaign.”
Kentucky-based Ramaco Resources Inc. again accused opponents of the Brook Mine of wanton obstructionism. Neighbors and those who farm and recreate in the popular area near Sheridan told the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that Ramaco and the state, in the revised application, still have failed to adequately evaluate and address environmental rules and regulations that require protecting the integrity of existing nearby uses.
“This permit is being held to the highest standards. Those who would say otherwise have other agendas,” Ramaco attorney Tom Sansonetti told the DEQ in a live-streamed public hearing.
The agency heard testimony from proponents of the Brook Mine — Ramaco and Sheridan County business and economic development boosters — as well as critics of the revised plan, which include the Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council and neighboring landowners, many of whom have ties to current and past coal mining in the region.
The PRBRC in the 1970s worked closely with Wyoming congressional delegates to help pass the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act — one of the guiding federal laws that now stands between Ramaco and its ambitions to open the new coal mine intended to serve the company’s related facilities along the Tongue River just outside of Sheridan. The Wyoming DEQ holds primacy over several federal laws related to mining coal, including elements of the SMCRA.
Ramaco’s first attempt at gaining a Wyoming DEQ permit in 2017 resulted in a week-long trial-like hearing before DEQ’s independent oversight panel, the Environmental Quality Council, which agreed with opponents and advised Ramaco to revise the application.
That EQC ruling in 2017 drew the ire of some legislators. Threats to strip the EQC of funding and its authority over Wyoming DEQ followed in the wake of the decision.
The independent EQC is made up of seven citizens appointed by the governor. Gov. Mark Gordon, who previously served as chairman of the EQC during another politically charged moment between the body and elected officials during the coal-bed methane gas boom, has not weighed in on Ramaco’s permit now pending before the state. But he has reiterated his support of the EQC’s independent authority.
Ramaco is embroiled in several lawsuits regarding its proposals in Wyoming, including a legal battle with Big Horn Coal Co. — which owns surface rights over much of Ramaco’s private coal holdings — as well as a case that went to the Wyoming Supreme Court in the wake of EQC’s 2017 decision.
Products, not power
If successful, Ramaco’s Brook Mine would be the first new coal mine to open in Wyoming in decades — bucking myriad forces that are driving U.S. coal production to historic lows and threatening the viability of much larger coal mines in Wyoming that depend on the nation’s shrinking coal-fired power plant fleet.
This month, Decker Coal Mine in Montana, just miles away from Ramaco’s proposed Brook Mine, furloughed 98 miners — more than half the mine’s workforce. In April, 73 miners were laid off at Navajo Transitional Energy Co.’s Spring Creek mine, also just miles across the Wyoming-Montana border from Sheridan. All told, more than 500 coal miners have lost their jobs or have been furloughed in the Powder River Basin so far this year.
The outlook for Wyoming coal only gets worse; energy analysts warn that the Powder River Basin — the nation’s largest coal complex by volume — is due to see mine closures soon, following a tumultuous period of coal company bankruptcies in the region.
But Ramaco, and its affiliated companies, say their plans bypass the declining market that depends on coal-fired power plants. The proposed new mine is intended to supply a coal-to-carbon fiber-products lab and plant proposed by Ramaco affiliates. The enterprise aims to serve a market that, so far, doesn’t exist at commercial scale but that proponents say might provide a lucrative future for Wyoming coal.
“The Brook Mine might be small by Wyoming standards, but it is unique,” Sansonetti told Wyoming DEQ on Wednesday, adding that the future of Wyoming coal is as a feedstock for manufacturing products. “We have a chance to enter the new age for Wyoming’s future.”
Ramaco Resources purchased mineral rights to 1.1 billion tons of private coal along the Tongue River northwest of Sheridan in 2011 with an eye toward coal exports on the West Coast. Over the years, Ramaco’s plans for its holdings in Wyoming have changed. Rather than mine at a rate of up to 2.5 million tons per year for commercial sale, it now plans to mine up to 250,000 tons, primarily to serve Ramaco Carbon’s coal-to-products plant.
By comparison, Wyoming mines in nearby Campbell County have an annual production rate of between 10 million tons and 100 million tons.
In September, Ramaco affiliates received more than $2 million in U.S. Department of Energy grants — part of a $5 million package to promote coal-to-products efforts. Last year, Ramaco Carbon CEO Randall Atkins was appointed chair of the National Coal Council, a committee that advises the U.S. Secretary of Energy on coal viability and marketing matters.
Ramaco Resources also received a $8.44 million loan under the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program in April to partially reopen its Elk Creek mine in West Virginia after it furloughed employees due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Randall Atkins’ brother, Charles Atkins, now director of development for Ramaco Carbon, in the 1980s was convicted in one of New York’s largest fraud cases for “bogus trading losses” and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Yet for nearly a decade, the Atkinses and fellow Ramaco officials have worked to win support in Sheridan County and among state officials for a vision to add value to Wyoming coal — an industry that finds itself at a crossroads with thousands of Wyoming jobs at stake.
“Ramaco has taken the utmost care to complete the very thorough permit application and is investing in our community,” Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce CEO Dixie Johnson wrote in comments to Wyoming DEQ. “The Brook Mine permit is a necessary step in advancing the Advanced Carbon Research park, which will enable the company to use our highest quality coal to create advanced products such as carbon fiber and graphene.”
Ag and recreation dig in
Wyoming DEQ received nearly 100 written comments regarding the revised Brook Mine permit (read written comments posted at Wyoming DEQ). Many of the same objections from neighboring landowners that helped derail Ramaco’s Brook Mine permit in 2017 remain.
(The 2017 hearings were marked by contention. In 2017, Ramaco spokesman Bill Bissett in a Facebook post described opponents to the Brook coal mine permit application — specifically members of the PRBRC — as “stupid hippies.”)
Neighbors and activists say the mine could harm agriculture, domestic and livestock water, Slater Creek, the Tongue River, plus hiking, fishing and hunting in the popular recreation area eight miles northwest of Sheridan.
Mary Brezik-Fisher and her husband live within a half-mile of the proposed mine, and they have appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court to uphold the EQC’s 2017 ruling against the Brook mine permit. She and her neighbors are not anti-coal, Brezik-Fisher said — many have depended on and worked in coal mining at some point. But she believes that detailed questions seeking assurances that the agricultural and environmental integrity of the Tongue River valley will be protected are continually ignored and recast by Ramaco as hostile opposition.
She alleged that Ramaco’s strategy is “drowning out landowners’ concerns with a slick campaign.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Ramaco representatives said they’ve heard worries from neighbors and have addressed them. The only question before Wyoming DEQ is whether the company has fully addressed the parameters of its application for the Brook Mine, which has been in the works since 2014, Sansonetti said.
Critiques of Ramaco’s business plan to convert Wyoming coal into products are not relevant, he said; Ramaco’s Brook Mine is a private business that neither critics nor the state should object to based on its chances of success. If Ramaco is prevented from mining its private coal, Sansonetti asked, “then who is going to reimburse Ramaco? … The objectors? The state?”
The fate of Ramaco’s Brook Mine permit now lies with Wyoming DEQ administrator Todd Parfitt, who has 60 days to make a decision. Opponents, including the PRBRC, say if Parfitt instructs DEQ to approve the proposed permit, they will likely again file an appeal to the EQC.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify the involvement of Mary Brezik-Fisher and her husband in litigation related to the Brook Mine permit. -ED.