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Northern Wyoming coal company faces hearing over first proposed coal mine in decades

May 22, 2017 GMT

A five-day hearing begins Monday to decide whether a controversial new coal mine will be able to move forward in Sheridan County.

Ramaco Resources would open the first coal mine in decades in Wyoming, at a time when most expect the coal industry to contract, not expand.

But the proposed Brook Mine on the bank of the Tongue River is contested by a handful of local landowners and another coal company, Big Horn Coal, which operated in the region until the mid-1980s.

The hearing will be a quagmire of dissenting opinions. Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality will make its case first, explaining how permitting for coal mining works and why state regulators chose to give an early nod to Ramaco’s mine plan, the final hurdle to obtaining a mining permit. Big Horn Coal argues that the mine’s boundaries were drawn to overlap with its own.

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The Powder River Basin Resource Council, and a local couple, are raising concerns over environmental assurances they believe were unlawfully left out of the mine plan.

Typically, Powder River Basin coal is associated with the large open-pit mines of Campbell County, but in the early 1900s, coal mining was big business in northern Wyoming. Littered across Sheridan County are remnants of towns that rose up around mining operations. In some places a stone church or an old building may have survived; in others nothing is left but a signpost to tell the story of a robust coal town that has since disappeared.

Ramaco would like to revive that history, working in an area previously mined and reclaimed. Its plans have pleased local politicians and many residents who see an opportunity for increased local revenue and jobs. Though the original mine plan described a relatively small operation, Ramaco has since announced that it would like to build a mine-to-mouth complex, potentially tapping into new uses for coal beyond the electricity sector.

But some locals distrust the company from the eastern slope of Appalachia, viewing it as a newcomer that has failed to do its due diligence. Because of the history of mining in the area, locals say sinkholes and burning coal seams are not uncommon. New mining would exacerbate that, and Ramaco has not provided enough study in its mine plan to mitigate potential damages to the surrounding community.

Additionally, mining so close to the Tongue River — less than 100 feet in some areas — makes water contamination a strong possibility, according to Big Horn Coal.

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“Brook’s mine and reclamation plans fail to adequately study high wall mining through previously mined materials and the associated, foreseeable hydrologic risks, particularly given the historical coal seam fires and subsidence events in this area,” the company wrote in a pre-hearing memo.

Ramaco’s plans also overlap with Big Horn’s permitted area, the company argues, and its operations would impede Big Horn’s plans in the future.

Ramaco’s representatives said in earlier interviews with the Casper Star-Tribune that they have studied the issues raised by the local landowners and maintain that each has been addressed by their experts. They contest Big Horn’s claims of overlapping acreage as well.

Meanwhile, the state argues that the DEQ has a long history in mining permits and is holding Ramaco accountable every step of the way. The company will not be allowed to move forward until they’ve complied with the rules for permitting, regulators have said.

The hearing begins 3 p.m. Monday at the Thorne-Rider Campus Center at Sheridan College, Room TRCC 008. It is scheduled to last until Friday. The Wyoming Environmental Quality Council, the regulatory body that hears contested cases, plans to live stream the hearing, technology permitting.