(Casper Star Tribune, October 29) – In November of 2014, Gov. Matt Mead held a news conference announcing a Kentucky company had applied for a permit to open a new coal mine near Sheridan. The governor touted a study that found the newly christened Brook Mine would create 600 jobs and generate $30 million in annual wages.
“This is a tremendous development for Wyoming’s economy and will benefit the country as we provide affordable and abundant power,” Mead said at the time.
Nearly one year later, Ramaco LLC’s plans remain tied up in court, plagued by complaints that the Lexington-based firm lacks legal access to the land it seeks to mine. State officials and company representatives say the project is moving forward. Resolving access issues, they contend, are a part of the permitting process.
But court documents suggest Ramaco remains far from resolving its issues. A Sheridan County judge last month dismissed requests from the mine’s opponents and proponents to issue a judgement in the case. The ruling puts the Brook Mine on track for trial, further clouding Ramaco’s attempts to secure a permit.
Randall Atkins, Ramaco CEO, said the company is in a “normal permit review and comment period.”
“Bottom line, litigation is not impacting us, and we are proceeding ahead,” he said.
Ramaco’s plans are an anomaly at a time when coal companies are struggling. Patriot Coal Corp., Walter Energy Inc., and Alpha Natural Resources have all filed for bankruptcy this year following a period of weak pricing and declining demand.
The Lexington firm contends it can thrive even at today’s low prices, using a technique known as highwall mining. The practice relies on a 12-foot auger, which bores into a hillside, removing the coal but not the land above it.
“I think it would be tight in today’s market,” said Bob Burnham, an industry consultant.”But it makes sense for me what they’re trying to do.”
The disagreement over access to the Brook Mine centers around a 1954 deed. The document gives a Ramaco subsidiary, Brook Mining Co., ownership of the mineral rights to the property. But a second mining firm disagrees.
Big Horn Coal Co., a Lighthouse Resources Inc. subsidiary, operated a former mine at the site for more than 30 years.
In 1983, when mining ceased, Big Horn was granted a release from its mining lease by the property’s former owner, the Sheridan-Wyoming Coal Co. The release, Big Horn contends, gave it the right to the property’s surface.
Ramaco later purchased the deed to the site.
The court case essentially boils down to a debate over which document has legal precedent: the release or the deed.
Big Horn and Ramaco each filed lawsuits seeking a judgement to support their respective claims, but Sheridan County District Court Judge William Edelman rejected their arguments. The debate, he ruled, is a question of fact and therefore could not be resolved by a summary judgement.
Lighthouse did not respond to a request for comment.
Keith Guille, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, said Ramaco’s application is in the third round of technical review. The review must be completed by Nov. 15, he said.
“There are some additional questions that we have that need to be answered when it comes to this permit,” he said, citing wildlife, groundwater and access as a few of the issues.
But that is common for such a large permit application, he said, with several rounds of back and forth between the agency and company over the submission.
If Ramaco completes its application before Nov. 15, the permit will go to public comment. Failure to complete the permit would prompt another round of technical review.
Yet access figures to be an issue, he conceded.
“My understanding is that still has not been resolved,” Guille said. “It has to be resolved in the sense they have access to deem that (permit) complete.”