A rival coal company thinks Ramaco, LLC filed a permit application that lacks details about its proposed mine’s potential impacts on the area.
Ramaco is the company behind a new coal mine proposed north of Sheridan. It’s application permit inadequately addresses potential contamination of the Tongue River, doesn’t describe how coal will be transported out, and falls far short when it comes to threats from underground coal seam fires burning in the region, rival Big Horn Coal Company contends.
The proposed mine may also fail to generate enough income to guarantee reclamation, Big Horn wrote. The series of objections was filed on Jan. 25 and signed by general manager Jordan Sweeney.
The Wyoming DEQ has deemed the permit for the proposed Brook Mine complete, but the agency declined to approve it, leaving that decision to the Environmental Quality Council, a seven-member appeals board.
The two coal companies have been in a long-running legal dispute. Big Horn Coal owns surface rights to land over some of the proposed mine area. Ramaco owns the mineral rights to the coal beneath the surface. It’s a battle that’s been fought before in the West, but in this case it’s playing out among coal-company lawyers, not between a mining company and farmers or ranchers, as is often the case.
Big Horn Coal Company has been mining in the area since the 1940s, selling coal to utilities to burn for electricity. In a changing utilities market, however, new company Ramaco seeks to develop carbon products like lightweight car parts, according to statements from CEO Randall Atkins.
Property dispute aside, Big Horn Coal’s environmental concerns regarding the permit echo those of some local landowners and the Powder River Basin Resource Council. The conservation group accuses the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality of trying to push the permit through without addressing the public’s worries. The DEQ disputes that assessment, and says all concerns will be taken into account and addressed in front of the Environmental Quality Council.
One motivation for Big Horn Coal’s worry is made clear early in the objection letter. “BHCC would like to put it on record that it is providing written notice of its concerns so Brook Mine and other affected parties have notice and are aware of these issues,” the company wrote. “Big Horn Coal is not responsible for any personal, property or environmental damage or other loss due to the disturbance activities associated with the Brook Mine.”
Big Horn Coal Company is a subsidiary of Utah-based Lighthouse Resources, and has a history of mining in the area around tiny Monarch, north of Sheridan. The Big Horn coal mine operated from 1944 to 2000, not far from the proposed Brook Mine.
Lynne Boomgaarden, who is representing Big Horn Coal for the law firm Crowley Fleck, declined to comment for this article. Boomgaarden is a former director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments and has served as chairwoman of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She also sits on the board of trustees for the Wyoming chapter of The Nature Conservancy, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Big Horn’s Sweeney did not respond to voicemails. Shelleen Smith, Ramaco’s director of external affairs, said the company would not comment on legal matters currently before state regulators.
A legacy of coal mining in the area around Monarch and the proposed coal mine has led to land subsidence and underground coal seams that are slowly burning
“You can drive the roads up here and you can see it,” said Mark Rogaczewski, the Land Quality Division manager for the Sheridan office of the DEQ. “[The fires] produce steam even when it’s colder out.”
Rogaczewski was not authorized to speak about the proposed Ramaco mine, he said, and thus could not evaluate Big Horn Coal’s concerns.
Ramaco’s proposed mining would take place in areas of coal seams that are known to still have underground coal fires burning, according to Big Horn Coal’s objections. “Plumes of steam and smoke have been observed again … this winter of 2016-2017.” The signs would seem to indicate the subsurface fires have expanded considerably from where they were originally documented in the 1980s, the objection says.
Coal fires occur naturally from lightning strikes or wildfires that touch off an exposed piece of a coal seam, said Tom Drean, director of the Wyoming Geological Survey. Some can begin as a result of mine fire in an underground mine, Drean said, although that’s a rarer occurrence. Underground mines were prominent north of Sheridan in the late 1800s and early 1900s. If new mining creates an opening into a burning coal seam, oxygen and water could flow in and stimulate the flames, Big Horn Coal writes.
“Coal fires are common in this area,” Ramaco engineers wrote in an email. “Although these are a concern for the Brook Mine, the mine can safely work around and amongst these coal fires and extinguish them in some cases.”
In the permit application, Ramaco also wrote about its plans to backfill any areas where subsidence — land sinking as the coal beneath it is removed — occurs. “Backfilling will also be performed if it is determined that the introduction of water and oxygen could contribute to spontaneous ignition of the remaining coal not extracted from the highwall mining operations,” the application said.
Big Horn Coal scoffed at that explanation.
“BHCC contends it to be common knowledge in the mining industry that oxygen and water are key catalysts in causing spontaneous combustion in coal,” the company wrote. “BHCC also believes that the introduction of additional water and air to a coal seam already on fire is especially problematic.”
Ramaco told WyoFile the mining company could not only safely approach a burning coal seam, but could even mine it. “Unstable conditions (like a burning coal seam) can be identified, mined safely, mitigated and restored to a stable condition,” the company wrote. “This mining actually extinguishes the fire and provides a more stable environmental and safety condition.”
Big Horn Coal also objected to the fact that Ramaco’s plans did not seem to include any effort to document any underground fires miners might come across. The plan did not include “mapping, photographing and describing all evidence of surface or underground coal fires” within the mine area as evidence becomes available, Big Horn Coal wrote.
Underground coal fires can become surface hazards if they’re exposed and touch off a ground fire. Comments filed by landowners adjacent to the property suggest it’s a threat Ramaco has already proven itself slow to respond to.
John and Vanessa Buyok’s property lies across Interstate 90 and up a hill from the permit area, within half a mile of the boundary, according to the objections the Buyoks filed. The Buyoks have dealt with both subsidence and coal fires before.
In the spring of 2014, they wrote, a coal fire “surfaced” about 100 yards from a house belonging to either John or Vanessa’s Buyok’s sister. The wind was blowing just the right way to send sparks from the burning coal into “dense vegetation” along the Tongue river.
The Buyoks said they contacted the DEQ, and the agency sent an engineer to look at the fire. The engineer had a plan to put the fire out, but needed permission from Ramaco, which owned the mineral rights on the property. Getting that permission took months, the Buyoks wrote. As the Buyoks waited, spring became summer and the vegetation began to dry out, making it more susceptible to the slow burning fire, they wrote. According to their comments, the fire was not put out until August.
Jeff Barron, a Ramaco engineer, said the company responded to an earlier request for consent within three months. The company was approached by an engineering firm in May 2013 asking for “routine” abandoned mine land mitigation, he wrote in an email to WyoFile. A fire was never mentioned, he said, but the company gave ongoing consent for any mitigation projects in the area.
Therefore, when the fire occurred in 2014, consent to work on it had already been granted, he wrote.
For the Buyoks, however, not only was the episode an example of the hazards posed by underground coal fires, but it also revealed that the company wouldn’t make good neighbors, they allege.
“If it is this difficult to get RAMACO to do something that did not cost them a penny, was in their financial interest because it was their coal that was burning, and required no more effort than signing a piece of paper,” the Buyoks wrote, “we can only imagine the difficulties we will have getting them to mitigate any damages caused by the Brook Mine and costing them real money.”
Barron sent the following comment to contest the idea that Ramaco was a poor neighbor: “As an example of Ramaco’s attempt to be a good neighbor; last year Ramaco by request of the Sheridan County Engineer, allowed the Buyok’s and other neighbors to use Ramaco’s surface property as access to their property’s while the Monarch bridge was out over Tongue River. Their only access for 2 weeks in Nov. of 2016 was over Ramaco land.”
According to Ramaco’s mine plan, “the impacts to surface water at the Brook Mine will be considerably less than those of a conventional surface, or strip, mine in the Powder River Basin.” The company claims that because their highwall mining technique with less surface area, there is less opportunity for runoff and other disturbances to waterways. Highwall mining involves drilling into the earth sideways from the bottom of a trench, avoiding the continual excavating of traditional surface mining techniques in the Powder River Basin. (For an overview of a highwall mining technique, see this promotional video for the Addcar Highwall Mining System, which Ramaco’s CEO has referenced in the press)
Big Horn Coal expressed concerns about the Tongue River, which loops around the southern end of the proposed mine site — at certain points, mining would come within 100 feet of the river bank, the company contends. Returning again to possible land subsidence, the company wrote the environmental impacts of subsidence near the Tongue River or the adjoining Goose Creek would be “severe.” The mine permit application at a minimum should have included a commitment to cease mining near the waterways should subsidence develop at any time, Big Horn Coal wrote.
Subsidence could impact the Tongue River and Goose Creek’s bank stability and alignment, the company wrote, though Ramaco claimed otherwise. Plus, mining so close to the waterways would cause any groundwater contaminated by underground coal fires to pollute the rivers, the company wrote.
The company then went on to call Ramaco’s plans to control possible subsidence inadequate. “It appears that no analytical work of any sort (sampling, material testing, etc.) has been performed in support of the highwall mining design,” Big Horn Coal wrote.
The company also said the plan inadequately addresses groundwater monitoring once the mine is operational. Maps show only two surface water monitoring sites downstream from the proposed mine, both in reservoirs which Ramaco’s mine plan claims will be “disturbed” by their operation. If those are disturbed, there will be no monitors left, Big Horn Coal wrote. “There will be no sites downstream of the Brook Mine to collect adequate surface and groundwater data to prove that there are no off site environmental impacts.”
Big Horn Coal Company also expressed doubt about Ramaco’s chances for business success. The company contends that Ramaco’s mining plan “cannot be done economically” and the coal’s market is unclear. “Without a definitive market, the Brook Mine is at risk of commencing operations, producing product it cannot sell economically and reclamation obligations that it cannot fund,” Big Horn Coal wrote.
Ramaco’s CEO, Randall Atkins, has been fluid with mine’s business plan in the press. According to news reports, when first proposed the mine was going to use highwall mining to produce around 8 million tons a year.
In May 2014 Atkins told the Casper Star-Tribune he believed the cheaper mining technique and the small amount of proposed coal (some of the larger PRB mines produce over a 100 million tons) would allow the company to successfully find markets and make money. Atkins talked about potentially exporting to foreign markets or finding domestic niches for his coal. Highwall mining is significantly less labor intensive than surface mining — the machines can be run by small crews of fewer than a dozen people, Atkins has said.
Then, in an October 2016 interview with the paper, he said the mine would start even smaller, while staying quiet about Ramaco’s long-term plans. Atkins told the Star-Tribune the mine would commence operations this spring. This prediction turned out to be hasty, given the time the permitting process has taken.
Atkins said Ramaco intended to start mining on a limited basis and sell the coal locally as “stoker coal” used to feed furnaces and heat buildings. Some homes in the area still use coal heaters, though landowners have told WyoFile they had no need for another coal provider. Operations were to begin on less than 350 acres and mine “no more than a couple hundred thousand tons a year to get started,” Atkins said.
The company declined to comment on “plans for the broader use of the property until after the permit process,” he said at the time.
In late February, Atkins told the Sheridan Press he planned to develop “value added” coal products on site, as opposed to burning the coal at all. The CEO discussed carbon-fiber products for lightweight car parts. Ramaco will build a research facility and industrial park to develop and produce new products out of coal from the mine, he said. The proposed facilities would flank I-90, in what are currently two fields abutting the Tongue River, according to a company schematic.
The process will be considered light manufacturing, Atkins has said, though the facilities are not included in the mine permit. He declined to comment on the differences between the permit application and the business plan he has discussed in the press.
Council will decide
“In conclusion, Big Horn Coal Company feels strongly that the Brook Mine permit application should not be approved or deemed technically complete,” Sweeney’s objection letter concluded. “The mine and reclamation plan lack a significant amount of detail.”
Shannon Anderson, an attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said Big Horn Coal’s objections will be addressed by Ramaco during a trial-like hearing. The hearing begins May 22, when both coal companies, along with the PRBRC and some independently objecting landowners, will make their cases to the Environmental Quality Council. The hearing that could last a week, Anderson said.
Anderson has told WyoFile she worries the Environmental Quality Council, a seven-member committee appointed by the Governor, is ill-suited to make the final decision on technical questions like those raised by Big Horn Coal.
The chairman of the EQC, David Bagley, is a UW chemical engineering professor. The rest of the committee consists of a real estate and crude-to-rail developer, two ranchers, a spokesman for Cloud Peak Energy, a government-affairs representative for oil giant Devon Energy and the former director of Wyoming’s Office of Administrative hearings.
In a report prepared for Ramaco by WWC Engineering of Sheridan, the company argued it had completed all the steps in Wyoming’s “lengthy” process of applying for a permit. The state of Wyoming, through the DEQ, has agreed with the company’s assessment that it completed the permitting process, the report concluded.
That agency’s role in the May hearing is not clearly defined. Traditionally, an environmental issue reaches the Environmental Quality Council after a decision made by a regulatory agency has been appealed by the public. In this case, the DEQ never made a decision on the permit, so there is nothing to appeal. Instead, DEQ Director Todd Parfitt left the decision to the council. While the DEQ won’t advocate for approval of the Brook Mine permit, it will defend its completeness.
“We will be providing information regarding our decision that this application is technically complete,” spokesperson Keith Guille said several weeks ago. It was not his agency’s place to review Ramaco’s changing business plan, he said.
This story was clarified on April 25 in light of further information from Ramaco engineer Jeff Barron about the company’s response to the Buyoks’ claim that a coal fire in the area met with delayed action — Ed.
Below are Big Horn Coal Company’s objections to the Brook Mine permit application: