by Gillian Malone
A mining proposal that, if approved, could affect farming, ranching and recreation around the Tongue River for the foreseeable future, is under consideration by Wyoming’s Environmental Quality Council. The EQC’s decision on Ramaco Carbon, LLC’s permit application for a new underground coal mine is expected this summer. The Brook Mine would be just a few miles north of Sheridan in the Tongue River Valley, along the historic Black Diamond Trail, where the mining towns of Monarch, Kooi, Kleenburn and Acme thrived from the 1890s into the 1920s. The area now draws tourists, outdoor recreationists and history buffs.
Two highly recognized experts on subsidence and hydrology reviewed Ramaco’s permit application and declared it “deficient” because it lacks the necessary baseline data and analysis to determine how mining would affect the complex hydrologic system of the Tongue River, agricultural production and groundwater wells, and because of the potential for ongoing subsidence endangering lives and degrading property values.
A hundred landowners between Sheridan and Ranchester live less than half a mile from the proposed mine. Some are descendants of coal miners, some coal miners themselves. They describe themselves as “not anti-coal,” but with real concerns about the mine site. Residents in the area rely on 350 groundwater wells that would be threatened by a coal mining operation. Historic mining has pock-marked the ground with subsidence pits that make it hazardous even for agriculture — one farmer drove his tractor into a subsidence pit. And the fact that active blasting could occur within half a mile of their property makes people wonder if their old stone buildings will stay standing.
When landowners realized that Ramaco’s permit application failed to protect their property, they requested an “informal conference” with the Department of Environmental Quality, the agency charged with processing the permit, in an attempt to have their concerns addressed. DEQ denied their request and they were left only one option — a formal, trial-like hearing before the EQC, where they provided testimony but weren’t able to ask their own questions.
The Tongue River Valley boasts outdoor recreation opportunities ranging from walk-in hiking and hunting, to fishing and floating the river. Is a coal mine compatible with these activities? We invest real dollars in attracting people to Sheridan. Tourism is Wyoming’s second largest industry, with more than 8 million people visiting the state each year. One has to wonder how a coal mine built on the northern entrance to Sheridan from Interstate 90 would look to visitors.
We have seen this movie before. A company pulls into town, flashes around promises of big money and jobs, and then disappears. Remember Rockwell Petroleum? They talked big and after three years laid off half their employees; a year later they were bankrupt. It’s time we stopped repeating this cycle in Wyoming.
Ramaco Carbon promises to employ thousands of people developing carbon fiber for the high-tech industry, but they have set up this mine under a different company, Brook Mine, LLC, which has no employees and no track record. Will they be good neighbors? Pay their bills?
Or make a mess and go bankrupt? (Incidentally, Ramaco Carbon, LLC only came into being when it became clear that neither an initially proposed full-scale coal mine nor a subsequent, down-scaled domestic coal sales operation was going to fly in today’s market.)
If the state of Wyoming is genuinely interested in carbon fiber technology, then why not pursue it in Gillette where research is already taking place? Gillette is where the active coal mines are, not to mention the unemployed miners. Why permit a new coal mine in an area that’s mostly mined out and rife with problems?
We don’t owe Ramaco Carbon a permit just because they bought the land and mineral rights. We do owe the residents of the Tongue River Valley the ability to farm and ranch and raise their families, as they have for generations, unhindered by the threat of lost water wells, damaged structures and shattered lifestyles.
Gillian Malone is member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council and an area resident that would be affected by the Ramaco Carbon, LLC mine. Photo courtesy of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
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