A Chapter Ends As Wyoming Grants Its First Coal Mine Permit In Decades
Anton Bocek lives on his 80-acre ranch where he deals in hay and cattle near Sheridan. His family has lived there for 42 years. It's the closest property to Ramaco's newly-approved Brook Mine.
"You can see the top of the hill that they're going to start on. I'm 0.17 miles from the proposed mine," he said.
In 2017, Bocek began to feel concerned about how a mine might affect his water well, how blasting would affect the community's recreation, or how the nearby road would get busy with haul trucks. He said it's still stressful.
"It's there pretty much all the time. You know, wondering: is the air quality, water quality going to be affected?"
It turned out there were several nearby landowners in the Tongue River Valley who had similar concerns back then too so they connected with a landowner group based in Sheridan called the Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC). Since then, Bocek and his sister Joan Tellez have become players in a contentious battle over the first coal mine permit in Wyoming in decades.
"We've written letters, we've had meetings and we've tried to meet with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)," she said.
Now, three years since the DEQ deemed the permit technically complete, three years of court cases, hearings, and outside experts, the DEQ has approved the application and put an end to this lengthy chapter. Bocek and Tellez are still skeptical.
For Randy Atkins, the CEO and Chairman of Ramaco Carbon, he's relieved to have come out on the other side after so much debate.
"[I'm] delighted it happened. I wish it'd happened a little sooner," he said. "I mean, it was really more of theater that I think was put on by the Powder River Basin folks to try and delay the process. And so, it did indeed delay the process, but you know, fortunately, we kept our guns and we are where we are right now."
The story begins back in 2014 when Brook Mining Company LLC, a subsidiary of Ramaco LLC, first submitted its permit application to develop the Brook Mine. The plan was lauded by Gov. Matt Mead with a plan to mine 100 million tons of coal over 20 years and bring in 600 new jobs to the area.
Later on, the company clarified that it would be a much smaller operation with a focus on finding new uses for coal. Ramaco now plans to use the resource for value-added products instead of burning it. The Brook Mine also now considers about 30 to 40 direct mining jobs. Back in 2017, the Sheridan mayor applauded the efforts.
Also back then, Atkins explained how it could work.
"If only 14 percent of the weight of U.S. autos, body and parts were derived from carbon fiber made from coal, that would be over a 100 million tons of coal translated into making that carbon fiber," he said.
Energy economist Rob Godby called this kind of technology far from a guaranteed success in 2017, but that, periodically, long-shots win.
Today, Atkins said he's excited about the idea of turning the Powder River Basin into a hub for carbon entrepreneurship.
Bocek and other landowners got involved soon after the DEQ deemed the permit technically complete. Many were frustrated that there was no public meeting like homeowner Brooke Collins.
"Where's the permit? Where are the people who promised to come talk to us? What's going on with this?" she questioned back in 2017.
The company though felt they had done their due diligence and had the sign-off.
Landowners soon dug deeper into the battle, hired outside scientific experts and found deficiencies in the permit. Surface owner Big Horn Coal also participated with its own questions. Anton Bocek, for one, was happy to get involved.
"We're just a small family and you know, we can't afford a lawyer. So, we went with Powder River to have somebody speak for us and do some research," he said.
Landowners and the PRBRC pushed for a contested case hearing in front of the independent review board the Environmental Quality Council (EQC). The DEQ pointed to that as the public hearing demanded by landowners.
Ramaco argued DEQ had been okay with its permit application. Their lawyer Jeffrey Pope questioned Jeff Barron, who led the permitting process for the company at the hearing.
"Are you aware of any permit conditions that have been suggested by the objectors that in your opinion is required to make the permit application accurate and complete?" Pope asked
"No," said Barron.
The other side pointed towards the need for more research into subsidence and hydrology. In the end, the EQC voted in favor of rejecting the permit and requested many of those revisions.
Ramaco later won a court battle, though that's under appeal, questioning whether that decision from the EQC was valid.
The debate flared up again this May during an informal public hearing as Ramaco returned with a revised permit based on EQC recommendations. By then, about a hundred individuals and businesses sent comments to the DEQ regarding the project; many of them in favor as well as opposed.
The PRBRC had experts in hydrology and subsidence comment once again. Dr. Jerry Marino, president at Marino Engineering Association with 40 years of experience in mine subsidence engineering, analyzed the revised permit and argued there's too little data to know exactly what the subsidence impacts would look like.
"What Ramaco has done in their permit application was they provided one token boring as a result of the Environmental Quality Council's findings. The boring itself showed ground conditions which were not really consistent with all the other borings that were done. They were anomalous conditions that require a different design based on the ground conditions," said Marino.
At the time, DEQ Director Todd Parfitt asked if Marino would recommend surface mining alone, to which he said yes.
Lawyer for Ramaco Tom Sansonetti voiced frustration at how lengthy and arduous this process has been.
"This permit is being held to the highest standards. Those who would say otherwise have different agendas regarding the issuance of this permit or indeed any extractive industry permit," he said.
Now, the DEQ has decided to grant the permit, but with conditions. Alan Edwards, DEQ Deputy Director, explained it ends 12 rounds of review.
"We identified some areas where the permit could be strengthened a little bit, we added some conditions. Some of them are just standard conditions that go into every permit," said Edwards. "But some of those were a direct result of information we received during the public comment period, and the informal conference."
DEQ found that it will need to see more data on subsidence before certain mining can occur; that blasting couldn't happen on weekends or holidays; that the Brook Mine would need to limit ground vibrations to protect structures near the permit area.
Ramaco CEO Randy Atkins said he's happy to have the permit, but that it was really in place years ago.
"The refinements… we could have easily dealt with in a simple agreement with the DEQ two and a half, three years ago. So, I think, the passage of time and the additional rumblings and court cases and hearings, etc. truly didn't add much," he said.
Nearby landowners Anton Bocek and Joan Tellez agree. They would have liked to see more come from the process, though they're happy to see some additions as well.
"We wouldn't be where we are today with some, you know what little relief it is at least we have a little bit of relief. But still not what we're looking for," said Bocek.
"I think there are probably a couple [improvements], but it's not anything real significant," said Tellez. "They don't address issues that we have, the concerns that we have."
She's especially worried about the traffic plan and transparency from the company.
From the viewpoint of the DEQ, though, spokesman Keith Guille said this process was successful.
"Because we do consider their comments. And we did at the end of the day, consider some comments put in as additional conditions in the permit. And those comments really did help us move forward here," he said.
The fight, though, may not be over quite yet. The PRBRC are still deliberating next steps, like the option to file an administrative appeal with the Environmental Quality Council.
Still, after nearly six years since the first permit application, the Brook Mine is a go.
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