Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER — Wyoming environmental regulators have approved a coal firm’s application to construct the state’s first new coal mine in nearly half a century.

The Department of Environmental Quality announced Tuesday it will issue a coal mining permit to Brook Mining Company LLC following years of internal review and public debate. The permit will allow the firm to mine for coal just north of Sheridan.

For nearly a decade, coal technology firm Ramaco Carbon (Brook Mine’s parent company), has fought to revive mining at a site eight miles northwest of Sheridan to supply its future research facilities with coal.

But the state permit application has been long in the making and has faced strong opposition from several nearby landowners.

“Our staff put an incredible amount of time and effort into reviewing this application and ensuring that all laws, rules and regulations were followed,” Department of Environmental Quality Director Todd Parfitt said in a statement. “As a result of the careful review by (Land Quality Division) staff and in consideration of comments received by the public additional conditions were added to ensure the environment, the public and Wyoming’s interests are appropriately protected”

On Feb. 26, Wyoming environmental regulators declared the company’s revised permit application “technically complete.” The announcement opened up a 60-day public comment period during which over 100 comments flooded the agency, both for and against the new mine. On May 13, the agency also held an informal conference where it accepted public comment on the matter. Parfitt held the ultimate authority to approve or reject the permit application for Ramaco Carbon’s coal mine.

Though it agreed to extend the coal mining permit, the state added a dozen additional conditions to the permit after hearing extensive feedback from the public, according to Parfitt.

Added conditions in the final permit include limits on blasting and ground vibration, as well as additional monitoring requirements to protect wildlife and water quality. The company will also need to post a $1.4 million bond for future cleanup before it can start mining.

“This permit is consistent with applicable federal and state laws and regulations and protects Wyoming’s interests while allowing responsible development,” Parfitt said.

“By awarding this permit, the state has acknowledged our efforts to be good stewards of this area’s high quality of life and environment,” Randall Atkins, Ramaco Carbon’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement. “It has also recognized our investment in the Sheridan area since 2011 and in the future of this state. This project has all been privately funded, without Wyoming State involvement.”

The company anticipates employing 30 to 40 miners when it initially opens.

The project’s proponents cite the positive economic growth the project could spur for Sheridan County and the state, especially at a time when demand for thermal coal has dramatically declined and local economies are hurting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I absolutely think it’s a good thing,” Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan, said in response to the state’s decision Tuesday. “If we are a pro-jobs, pro-economy state, I think projects like this deserve all the consideration.”

“I have full faith that they are going to do what they say they are going to do and adhere to state statutes and reclamation standards just like everyone else,” he added.Meanwhile, Tongue River Valley residents living near the proposed mine site have long expressed alarm over the potential environmental impacts and future financial liabilities associated with the Brook Mine for the county and state.

“We’re disappointed that the permit has been issued, but we hope that the numerous conditions will protect our health, water, safety, and property,” Anton Bocek, the nearest landowner to the mine boundary, stated. “We also hope that Ramaco is going to be a good neighbor, that they listen to and respect the neighboring landowners.”

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a grassroots landowner group, said the revised permit application was still “incomplete and deficient” in public comments submitted earlier this year. The group outlined numerous concerns related to the project’s impacts on surrounding land, water and air.

“The fact that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality placed 12 conditions on the permit is an indication that the Brook Mine permit is inadequate and incomplete,” Marcia Westkott, chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said in a statement Tuesday. “Currently, we are reviewing all of the conditions to make sure that the permit will protect the health and safety of the Tongue River Valley and its inhabitants.”

Brook Mining Company bought mineral rights in the Tongue River Valley near Sheridan to revive mining at an old coal site and complement future research facilities nearby. Ramaco wants to develop commercial uses for coal beyond electricity generation, like carbon fiber and graphene.

The company’s permit application underwent 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 multi-day 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, Parfitt, the director, 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 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.

Despite the pushback from local residents the company has stood firmly by its coal-driven vision for Wyoming.

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