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Congressional watchdog office says mining firms shouldn't be allowed to self-bond

A congressional watchdog office is calling for the end of self-bonding, a practice that coal companies in Wyoming are currently fighting to keep, environmental groups are attempting to discourage and state regulators are considering making harder to qualify for.

The Government Accountability Office released a report last week advising Congress to prohibit self-bonding, given the difficulty of figuring out whether a company is financially stable enough to do it and existing uncertainties in the coal market.

Self-bonding has been around for decades, allowing qualified companies to skip securing the cost of mining clean up through collateral or surety bonds. Instead, a company’s financial statements are used as proof that the firm is in good standing and that it can bear the cost of reclaiming a mine site, which may include anything from from filling in pits to repairing waterways.

The practice came under fire in Wyoming from environmental groups during the recent downturn, when three large firms with billions of dollars in unsecured cleanup costs filed for bankruptcy.

Federal regulators from the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation shared environmental advocates concerns about an unstable coal market. The agency put out a policy advisory in 2016, cautioning states against self-bonding going forward. The agency also announced its intention to adjust its rules, a move that stalled out under the new presidential administration.

The report from the Government Accountability Office calls on Congress to make a change to federal rules that would mean an end to self-bonding in states like Wyoming.

The debate continues on a state level regardless of congressional action. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which has maintained that self-bonding should remain a viable option, recently released a draft update to its financial assurance rules that prickled the coal industry. Under the proposed changes, companies would need a high credit rating from a firm like Moody’s Investor Service to get self-bonds. Companies say this effectively eliminates self-bonds, but supporters approve the changes, arguing that it diminishes the risk of unreclaimed mines in Wyoming.

Companies like Peabody, which operates the North Antelope Rochelle mine and emerged from bankruptcy last year, said they want the option to self-bond on the table. The company replaced its self-bonds as part of its exit strategy from bankruptcy, but the company’s leadership has previously noted a possibility that it would self-bond again in the future.

Wyoming’s push to strengthen its rules failed to make it past the Land Quality Advisory Board, which must approve a regulation change. In a meeting on March 28, Peabody and the Wyoming Mining Association made their case before board members. The updates were sent back to state regulators for more study and an economist for the Department of Environmental Quality will give a presentation to the board on current financial markets and how the proposed changes fit into the new normal.

State regulators are still reviewing the Government Accountability Office report, a department spokesman said Friday.

“We tackled self-bond with these new rules to reduce the risk to the state,” DEQ spokesman Keith Guille said of the proposed changes. “They’re suggesting Congressional action. That certainly is out of our hands.”

The Government Accountability Office report advises a change to federal law that would make Wyoming’s debate moot. Wyoming runs its own coal program, but its rules and regulations must be as strict as the federal standards laid out in Congress’ Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Casper coffee shop run by teen still strong as it approaches 1-year mark

A crowd of customers brushed off snow flurries and removed hats and scarves as they gathered inside Crescent Moon Coffee Stop on a freezing Friday morning.

Makenzie Rothfuss greeted many by name as she dashed around the kitchen, steaming milk and mixing up lattes. One man complimented her new haircut: The 19-year-old recently chopped off her long blonde locks to showcase a crescent moon tattoo on the nape of her neck.

“Fridays are always busy,” she said, adding that the cafe usually has a quieter atmosphere.

Many of the patrons were clearly regulars but new customers should be forgiven if they assume the young barista is just working a part-time job. Most teenagers don’t open their own business. But that’s exactly what Rothfuss did last June.

“I always wanted to own a business,” she explained.

After working at Metro Coffee Company for a year and a half, Rothfuss said she was ready to venture out on her own. Her father, who used to own a car dealership, immediately supported her entrepreneurial spirit.

Her parents helped her lease a former flower shop in downtown Casper in December 2016. The family quickly went to work ripping up floors, tearing down walls and expanding the bathrooms.

Crescent Moon officially opened its doors last summer while the city was preparing for the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, which inspired its name.

Explaining that she’s developed a loyal customer base, Rothfuss considers her first year a success.

“We’re not in the red so that’s awesome,” she said, adding that many new businesses initially lose money.

But that’s not to say it’s been easy.

Seventy-hour weeks are the norm, according to Rothfuss, who does everything from serving customers and ordering supplies to sweeping the floor and cleaning the kitchen.

Fortunately, the teen genuinely enjoys her job. Experimenting with new ingredients and blends is one of the best perks, she said.

Some of her concoctions, like a honey lavender latte, end up on the menu. Others don’t make the cut.

“Half of them taste awful,” she said, recalling that her attempt to make a butterscotch and strawberry blend was especially terrible.

The creative menu helps Crescent Moon stand out from other coffee shops, said Julie Condelario. The Mexican mocha, which is made with cayenne pepper, has turned her into a loyal customer.

“I’ve been coming here about once a week... The cayenne pepper is different and outstanding,” she said.

Rothfuss said she’s hoping to gain even more customers once activities kick off at the David Street Station. The downtown plaza, which opened last summer, hosts various events in the warmer months.

The coffee shop is also holding its first open mic this week, which she hopes will turn into a regular Friday event.

Although starting and running a business is quite the undertaking, Rothfuss said she never doubted herself or her dream. Even knowing she’s younger than the average entrepreneur didn’t intimidate her.

“I knew what I was doing,” she said.

And with that, she returned to the kitchen for another order.

File, Star-Tribune 

Wyoming quarterback Nick Smith throws a pass against Fresno State on Nov. 18, 2017 at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.

Trump warns Assad: 'Big price to pay' for fatal Syria attack

Missiles struck an air base in central Syria early today, its state-run news agency reported. Although the agency said it was likely "an American aggression," U.S. officials said the U.S. had not launched airstrikes on Syria.

SANA reported that the missile attack on the T4 military air base in Homs province resulted in a number of casualties.

The missile attack followed a suspected poison gas attack Saturday on the last remaining foothold for the Syrian opposition in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. At least 40 people were killed, including families found in their homes and shelters, opposition activists and local rescuers said.

"Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria," President Donald Trump tweeted earlier Sunday. "Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!"

Despite Trump's tweeted threat of repercussions for the suspected chemical attack, Pentagon spokesman Christopher Sherwood said in a statement, "At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting air strikes in Syria."

The U.S. launched several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base last year after a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens of people. Israel also has struck inside Syria in recent years.

The suspected poison gas attack Saturday on the besieged town of Douma came almost exactly a year after the U.S. missile attack prompted by the Khan Sheikhoun deaths.

In response to the reports from Douma, Trump on Sunday blamed Syrian government forces for what he called a "mindless CHEMICAL attack." In a series of tweets, Trump held Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad's chief sponsors, responsible.

The Syrian government denied the allegations, calling them fabrications.

First responders entering apartments in Douma late Saturday said they found bodies collapsed on floors, some foaming at the mouth. The opposition's Syrian Civil Defense rescue organization said the victims appeared to have suffocated.

The developments come as Trump has moved to dramatically scale back U.S. goals in Syria, pushing for a quick military withdrawal despite resistance from many of his national security advisers. Trump has given no formal order to pull out the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria or offered a public timetable other than to say the U.S. will withdraw as soon as the remaining Islamic State fighters can be vanquished.

But Trump has signaled to his advisers that, ideally, he wants all troops out within six months.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Assad heard Trump's signal that he wanted to withdraw from Syria and, "emboldened by American inaction," launched the attack. In a statement, McCain said Trump "responded decisively" last year with the air strike and urged Trump to be forceful again to "demonstrate that Assad will pay a price for his war crimes."

Trump was briefed about Saturday's attack by his chief of staff, John Kelly, officials said. Trump's homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, noted the timing of the suspected chemical attack — almost a year to the day of the U.S. missile strikes.

"This isn't just the United States. This is one of those issues on which every nation, all peoples, have all agreed and have agreed since World War II, it's an unacceptable practice," Bossert said.

Trump was to meet with his senior military leadership today, the same day his new national security adviser, John Bolton, assumes his post. Bolton previously has advocated significant airstrikes against Syria.

Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday deemed Saturday's attack a "likely chemical attack" and reiterated Trump's threat that consequences would be coming for those responsible.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the assault on innocent lives, including children," Pence tweeted. "The Assad regime & its backers MUST END their barbaric behavior."

Trump's decision to single out Putin in a tweet appeared noteworthy because Trump long has been reluctant to personally criticize the Russian leader. Even as the White House, after some delay, imposed tough new sanctions on Russia in the wake of its U.S. election meddling and suspected poisoning of a former spy on British soil, Trump left it to others in his administration to deliver the rebukes to Moscow.

Last month, Trump called Putin and, against the counsel of his advisers, congratulated the Russian president on his re-election and invited him to the White House. On Sunday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, urged Trump to "ramp up the pressure and the sanctions on the Russian government, because, without the support of Russia, I do not believe that Assad would still be in office."

Trump also invoked Iran in his series of tweets, further challenging Tehran while signaling he may scuttle its nuclear deal with the West. The president has often laid some blame on his predecessor, Barack Obama, for Assad's continued grip on power after years of civil war.

Obama said in 2012 that Syria's use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" that would change his decision-making on intervening in the war and have "enormous consequences." After such an attack in 2013 killed hundreds outside Damascus, American ships in the Mediterranean were poised to launch missiles. But Obama pulled back after key U.S. ally Britain, as well as Congress, balked.

He opted for a Russian-backed proposal that was supposed to remove and eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

"If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!" Trump tweeted from the White House.