A seven-member state council, with two members recusing themselves, is slated to decide the fate of a controversial new coal mine permit when it convenes today in Cheyenne.
But whether Ramaco’s Brook coal mine permit is approved, denied or modified, some believe the mine developer and the state’s handling of the process, so far, have already damaged a valuable resource — public participation in a state-level energy development decision.
Sheridan county residents who have sought answers about the project say they have been:
- accused of committing slander and defamation of character (Sheridan attorney Anthony Wendtland letter to Joan Tellez, March 5, 2017)
- accused of committing libel (Western Research Institute press release, July 22, 2017)
- called “stupid hippies” (Ramaco spokesman Bill Bissett commenting on FaceBook)
- denied an informal conference with Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality
- trespassed upon by Ramaco agents
- repeatedly challenged in their right to provide testimony before the Environmental Quality Council
- told that without specific professional knowledge of geology and mining engineering they are not qualified to ask questions or testify about their experiences and concerns as neighbors of the mine project.
“Oil and gas and coal companies, they want to establish a good relationship with landowners,” said Mary Brezik-Fisher, who lives near Ramaco’s proposed mine. “But Ramaco has done just the opposite, and continues to minimize input from landowners. I just don’t understand that. … We could have resolved some issues without going to a hearing.”
Ramaco declined a request to provide comment for this story.
Kentucky-based Ramaco Resources Inc. is led by Executive Chairman and Director Randall W. Atkins, who followed in his father Orin E. Atkins’ footsteps in the oil and coal industries; and president and CEO Michael D. Bauersachs, who previously worked at Massey Energy Co. and Arch Coal. Ramaco’s primary financial backers are Yorktown Partners LLC and Energy Capital Partners.
Ramaco acquired 1.1 billion tons of thermal coal reserves a few miles north of Sheridan in 2011. At the time, coal markets were still robust and Powder River Basin producers were confident in a burgeoning new export market through northwest ports, which has yet to come to fruition.
In 2014, Ramaco filed its permit application for its Brook mine to much fanfare, including from Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who said “Wyoming’s favorable tax climate and reduced regulations make doing business here profitable.”
Ramaco’s vision for the property has evolved over the years, with the most recent iteration calling for a carbon research and manufacturing facility straddling Interstate 90 at the Tongue River crossing.
State and Ramaco favor legal process
While Sheridan County residents, including many of those who would neighbor the Ramaco facilities, generally support Ramaco’s ambitions for economic development, there is skepticism. Many view Ramaco’s promise of carbon research and manufacturing as a ploy to win favor among local and state officials for its mine.
“Ramaco is going around promising donations and jobs, if their permit is approved,” said PRBRC organizer Jill Morrison. “But they’re not talking to any of the landowners, or have had an open public meeting. The area where they want to build this [manufacturing facility] is not even zoned commercial-industrial.”
For decades, energy companies and financial backers have dreamed of refining Wyoming coal for higher-value uses in electrical generation and manufacturing products. None have reached commercialization here, and several have gone belly up at the cost of taxpayer support, such as DKRW’s coal-to-gasoline project, and the 2-decades long Two Elk saga that resulted in the federal fraud conviction of Michael J. Ruffatto.
Meanwhile, the Brook coal mine permit application, according to testimony from the PRBRC and several residents, is rife with deficiencies to protect the environment, neighboring agricultural operations and recreational use in the Tongue River Valley. It’s a rocky, hilly area where legacy mining has left the landscape scarred with subsidence and coal seam fires that have been burning for decades.
Both the state agency charged with permitting the mine application, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, and developer Ramaco say concerns related to the project are duly addressed in the pending mine permit application, which is not yet approved.
However, neither Ramaco nor the state have been willing to address concerns in an open-meeting format. Instead, both opted for a trial-like hearing before DEQ’s governing authority, the Environmental Quality Council, where citizens, if they want to testify, are subject to subpoena and cross-examination by attorneys.
Prior to the formal hearings, Wyoming DEQ did accept written public comments, as required by state law. Neither Ramaco nor DEQ are obligated to facilitate public participation beyond what they have, in fact. But residents close to the project say it’s only made matters more contentious than necessary.
Unable to open channels of communication with Ramaco, many citizens turned to the PRBRC to help organize, and to represent their concerns. The PRBRC hosted an open meeting at the library in Sheridan in 2015, attracting about 80 attendees, according to one estimate. But efforts to convince city, county and state officials to host further public meetings on the matter were met with resistance.
“Before being denied an informal conference, landowners were denied requests for a public meeting with DEQ and/or Ramaco/Brook Mine to simply ask questions and obtain information,” Brezik-Fisher told WyoFile. “Unbelievable, considering that we have public meetings on an almost daily basis for everything from fluoride in the water, to revisions to city park plan, to liquor license changes, construction of new baseball complex, to issuance of new gravel permits.”
To the letter of the law
DEQ spokesman Keith Guille said too much is made of the agency’s decision to deny an informal conference, as state rules and regulations allow. Such conferences aren’t as informal as the name would imply, Guille said, and instead are very similar to the EQC hearings that citizens eventually initiated.
“We felt it needed to go to an impartial group in the EQC, and that’s where we are now, and now that’s another opportunity for the public to express concerns about the project,” Guille told WyoFile.
While there’s been no informal public meeting, citizens are able to seek answers from DEQ staff individually regarding just about any matter under DEQ’s scope of work — although staff is limited in what it can reveal about some aspects of permit applications and cases that are contested in court and before the EQC.
“From our standpoint, we have to follow our rules and regulations to make sure the public has an opportunity to comment,” Guille said. “We always encourage applicants and permittees to have that good communication chain with neighbors and with the public. How they do that is up to them.”
Playing by the rules
Ramaco, like any energy developer seeking a DEQ permit, has participated in regular meetings with DEQ staff in an ongoing conversation to complete its permit and to address concerns brought by the agency. Company heads and its agents have also been in frequent contact with local officials in Sheridan County. They have also contacted staff in the governor’s office and at the state attorney general’s office with various concerns and requests.
For example, Randall Atkins sent a letter to Gov. Mead on Feb. 8, 2016 stating that DEQ staff had alerted Ramaco of an unfavorable interpretation by the state attorney general regarding a surface access dispute with a neighboring landowner. Atkins attached a proposed position paper on the legal matter for the governor’s office to consider.
During the EQC hearings regarding the Brook mine permit, cross-examination revealed that Ramaco’s attorney’s had prepped at least one DEQ staff member on details likely to come up in the hearing.
None of the actions appear to be in violation of the state’s Environmental Quality Act. However, the PRBRC and others say that the state’s cooperation with Ramaco — a developer with a reputation for being hostile to neighboring landowners — makes for bad optics, and has only served to make matters more contentious.
“This is unprecedented, I’ve never seen anything like this in Wyoming,” said Gillian Malone, who lives near the proposed mine and is an at-large board member of the PRBRC.
“There’s a lot of pressure, and you can tell there is,” Malone continued. “You can tell staff is really uncomfortable with questions.”
If there is a tactic to anger possible opponents of an industrial project in hopes to marginalize their concerns, refusing to have an open public dialogue might be one, said Malone. She said she pleaded with a Ramaco consultant, “I said you need to meet with these people. It will make your path easier if you will talk to them and let them have their say. I guess they think they don’t have to.”
Earlier this month, the PRBRC issued a press release criticizing what it considered misleading statements by Ramaco and its role in a U.S. Department of Energy carbon research grant. PRBRC chairman Bob LeResche wrote: “It appears that Ramaco Carbon and its associated shell companies intend to pocket funds from the taxpayers through DOE just like Michael [Ruffatto] and his notorious Two Elk scam, a project that was fraudulently awarded almost $10 million to research coal in a Campbell County facility that did not exist either.”
But instead of Ramaco responding, it was the managing grant recipient, Laramie-based Western Research Institute, that responded. The institute’s CEO, Don Collins issued a statement: “The libelous comment made by PRBRC that suggest that Ramaco, and by association WRI, intends to fraudulently pocket DOE grant funds on a project, which WRI will oversee and administrate, are inaccurate, unfair, and do not merit dignifying with a response.”