RANCHESTER — After years of permitting review and promised timelines that have come and gone, Ramaco Carbon CEO Randall Atkins said Wyoming's first new coal mine in more than four decades could be operational as early as this fall.
But a project Atkins hopes will ”make Sheridan the next Carbon Valley” still concerns Shannon Anderson, staff attorney and organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. While the Department of Environmental Quality approved a mine permit addressing several concerns of the 100 landowners living within a half mile of the mine, Anderson and the property owners remain concerned whether Ramaco will uphold its end of the bargain.
“I guess our concern, and the concern of many of our landowners, is that this is a company that has completely dismissed their neighbors in every stage of the process so far,” Anderson said. “They’ve never had a public meeting. They’ve never knocked on people’s doors to ask for their feedback. Even now, it still feels like they’re dismissing a lot of the concerns. That history doesn’t give us a lot of faith that they will suddenly start respecting the neighbors now. But all we can do is wait and watch what happens.”
The mine, located between Kleenburn and Ranchester near Interstate 90 has been a long time coming for the company, according to Atkins. Ramaco has worked with the Department of Environmental Quality for nearly a decade on the mine permit. The plan has long included the mine supplying coal for the company’s research activity and ultimately for manufacturing of advanced carbon products and materials. The mine project has been heavily subsidized by government dollars and grants.
Nearly a year after the mine permit was approved in July 2020, the beginning of mining is finally in sight, Atkins said. The company delayed mining until the completion of its iCAM (Carbon Advanced Materials) research center, which is located near the mine. Construction on the iCAM began in 2018, according to previous Sheridan Press reporting.
Once completed, the iCAM is slated to host researchers from national laboratories, universities, private research groups and strategic manufacturing organizations who will conduct applied research and development with the goal of using carbon found in coal to create advanced carbon-based manufactured products.
“The principal use of the coal that will be coming out of the Brook Mine, at least initially, is for research,” Atkins said. “We are not really in the position to do that until the iCAM building is completed.”
Atkins said his goal is to have his staff, who are currently located at several facilities throughout Sheridan County, moved into the 10,000-square-foot iCAM by July 4. From there, mining work can begin in earnest, Atkins said.
Once mining begins, the mine will employ between 50 and 100 people, while the iCAM will employ another 20 to 30, Atkins said. Additional workers will be hired once the company’s manufacturing arm begins operation, according to Atkins.
“It’s not General Motors in size, but it would be a fairly meaningful employer in the area,” Atkins said.
The start of mining at Brook is a concern for many nearby landowners represented by the resource council, according to Anderson. Many of the landowners still have the same concerns they shared through the permitting process. These include the project’s impacts on water rights and recreation access and its general impact on the land itself.
“The most important thing to realize about the proposed mine is that it is so different from the rest of the Powder River Basin mines,” Anderson said. “This is rural residential and agricultural land, and it’s some of the best agricultural land in the county if not all of northeast Wyoming. It’s an alluvial valley, which means it is a natural irrigated area next to a river. I think that’s the heart of the concern for a lot of people. This land is different and special, and a lot of people wonder whether it will ever be the same once the mining is completed.”
Nearby landowners declined to comment for this story. However, their written comments submitted during the permitting process outline their concerns.
John Buyok wrote in an April 23, 2020, letter to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality the location of the mine gives him and many neighbors pause.
“If they had actually been scrutinized to a greater extent than other mines, that scrutiny would have been totally appropriate,” Buyok wrote. “This is the only coal mine in the state that is within a few hundred feet of a major interstate highway AND is within a few hundred feet of one of the major rivers in the state AND is within a few hundred yards of numerous residents AND is within a few hundred yards of hundreds of private water wells AND is adjacent to areas that have previously been underground mined where subsidence of the surface is likely to be exacerbated by Ramaco’s activities.”
“Many significant questions remain on the wide-ranging impacts and even the common logic of locating a coal-mining operation in this area of the Tongue River Drainage,” nearby landowner Bill Bensel wrote in an April 23, 2020, letter to the WDEQ.
Once mining begins, there will also be significant impacts to the community’s ability to access walk-in hunting areas on the property, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Biologist Tim Thomas.
The 1,678-acre Walk-in Area 1, used for the hunting of antelope, deer, rabbits and numerous birds including pheasants and turkeys, partially overlaps with the permit area, according to Thomas. While hunters are currently allowed to access that area, it will be closed once mining work begins, Thomas said.
Recently,a portion of hunting area one was closed due to a change in surface rights ownership, Thomas said. The portion recently closed belongs to Big Horn Coal Company, a subsidiary of Lighthouse Resources LLC, according to the most recent Sheridan County GIS data.
Thus, this change in access was not related to the Brook Mine project or Ramaco’s presence in the area, and any future closures of the area once mining begins would be in addition to the existing closure, Thomas said.
When asked to address the concerns of his neighbors regarding the mine project, Atkins said he would do his best to address landowner concerns. He also noted “there were far more in support than those vocally against (the project),” and he said those in opposition “were organized by the Powder River folks” and wouldn’t be happy regardless of what the company did.
“They are not interested in coal, and they are not interested in energy development in Sheridan County,” Atkins said. “There is only so much we can do to make them happy.”
Anderson said the resource council is supportive of energy development as long as landowners are respectful and work to address the community’s concerns. She said she is concerned Atkins’ largely dismissive attitude toward his neighbors throughout the permitting process would continue as the project moves forward.
“We will continue to work with our members who live right there because blasting can be dangerous if it’s done wrong — particularly when homes are so close to the mine area,” Anderson said. “That’s something we’ll be following, and, if there are problems, we will be reporting it to the DEQ. We will also be following things like traffic on the nearby roads and recreation access.”
Anderson said the council will work to address concerns as needed throughout the mining process.
“I think it is important for us to question them (Ramaco) a little bit more and hold them to the standards they agreed to in the permit,” Anderson said. “While we would hope that they would do that without our involvement, I think it is important for us to remain involved, at least for now.”