By Michael Illiano
June 10, 2019 - In Wyoming, a Laramie County District Court judge last week considered an appeal of the state regulatory agency’s 2017 decision to deny a permit for a coal mine that Sheridan-based Ramaco Carbon hopes to build north of the city.
Judge Catherine Rogers heard arguments regarding Ramaco’s claim that the state’s Environmental Quality Council violated federal law when it decided to reject the company’s mining permit application for its proposed Brook Mine, which would be the first new coal mine built in Wyoming in more than 50 years.
Ramaco intends to use coal from the Brook Mine to supply facilities in the company’s iCAM research park — located adjacent to the site of the proposed mine — which it plans to use to develop methods for manufacturing a variety of products using the carbon from coal. The first phase of construction on the iCAM park is currently underway, according to a press release from October.
The EQC ordered the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to reject Ramaco’s permit after a contested hearing in September 2017 after concluding that the permit failed to adequately address concerns raised by neighboring landowners about the environmental impact of the proposed mine, including how the company would protect nearby water wells, how it would guard against sinkholes opening on the lands surrounding the mine and the effects of blasting. In October 2017, DEQ Director Tom Parfitt rejected the permit.
Ramaco is not challenging the EQC’s conclusions, however, but the process that led to its permit being denied.
Ramaco attorney Tom Sansonetti said the EQC overstepped its statutory authority in ordering the rejection of the Brook Mine permit and violated the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, federal legislation designed to control the environmental impacts of coal mines; he contends Wyoming’s Environmental Quality Act — the state’s environmental protection charter — has to be at least as lenient as SMCRA in considering mining permits.
SMCRA, Sansonetti said, requires that the director of a state’s regulatory agency issue final decisions on mining permits. According to Sansonetti’s interpretation, the EQC can recommend action, but does not have the authority to order it.
“The EQC is seven people that are appointed by the governor — they’re laypeople, they’re not experts in any of the particular areas of coal mining,” Sansonetti said. “And so the decision should be made by the DEQ.”
DEQ spokesman Keith Guille said he could not comment on matters currently being deliberated by the court.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council — which represents landowners opposed to the proposed mine — disputes Sansonetti’s interpretation of the EQC’s authority, however.
According to court documents, the PRBRC asserts that the WEQA adheres to SMCRA requirements and charges the EQC with issuing “findings of fact and a decision on” mining permit applications.
Further, the PRBRC argues that the EQC drew reasonable conclusions about the Brook Mine permit given the evidence, which should protect those conclusions from being overturned based on precedents established by the Wyoming Supreme Court.
Ultimately, Rogers’ statutory interpretation of the WEQA will decide whether Ramaco’s appeal is successful. There is currently no timeline for when she will issue her decision.
In October, Ramaco submitted a revised permit application for the Brook Mine to the DEQ, which the company said in a release corrects the deficiencies the EQC identified when it rejected the initial application.
The DEQ needs to affirm that the revised application is technically complete before it can go back before the EQC. Guille said the DEQ has requested additional information regarding the revised application — which, he noted, is typical before the agency deems an application complete — and the revised application is still under review.
Guille said he is unsure if, and how, Rogers’ decision will affect the revised application.
“We’re focused on what we have in front of us now, today, which are the revised portions of (Ramaco’s) permit,” Guille said.
If and when the DEQ determines that Ramaco’s revised application is complete, the agency will publish a notice once a week for four weeks that the permit application is publicly available for review. Citizens have 30 days from the last notice publication to issue complaints against the permit. Should the permit receive complaints, the matter could go back before the EQC.
Sansonetti said that possibility makes Roger’s decision on Ramaco’s initial application urgent.
“One of the things we pointed out to the court (Wednesday) is we’re about to go through this process yet again, so we need its decision right now,” Sansonetti said. “We need to know what was right and what was wrong otherwise we’re in an endless loop.”
Based on the attitudes of the opponents of Ramaco’s initial permit, Ramaco’s revised permit would likely face resistance.
PRBRC Executive Director Jill Morrison said she is skeptical that the revised permit will ease landowners’ concerns.
John Buyok, a landowner represented by the PRBRC who owns property that is less than a quarter-mile from the site of the proposed mine, said he shares Morrison’s skepticism.
“The thing that bothers me about this is this new proposed mine is so close to so many residences,” Buyok said. “It’s not like most of the other mines in the state where they’re out in the country with only one or two neighbors — there’s one-hundred-and-some residences that are really close by…That makes me a little nervous.”
He added that he believes the revised plan for the Brook Mine would still draw water away from his, and his neighbors’ wells, which could lead to the wells being empty during drought conditions.
Sansonetti, however, said the area where Ramaco intends to build the Brook Mine has historically been used for coal mining — most recently by the Big Horn Coal Company, which closed its operations in 1983 — and the company’s proposed use of the land is appropriate.
Both Rogers’ ruling and the DEQ’s approval of Ramaco’s revised permit are pending. The involved parties are anxiously awaiting those decisions.