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Energy
New rules restricting self-bonding in Wyoming fail to clear regulatory board

Proposed rules to limit self-bonding for mining companies in Wyoming will be sent back to their writers, a citizen regulatory board decided Wednesday after hearing complaints from the coal industry.

The Land Quality Advisory Board remanded the proposed rules back to state regulators at the Department of Environmental Quality after a public meeting in Gillette. The decision is a road block for environmental groups that are fighting to end self-bonding in Wyoming and a win for mining firms that want a reasonable chance at self-bonding in the future.

“The standards can’t be set so high that no one can use it,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.

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Self-bonding came under fire from environmental advocates in recent years who said it puts taxpayers at risk. It allows companies to wager the cleanup of mining operations on the strength of their financial history.

Supporters point out that self-bonding hasn’t been a problem, as no coal company has fallen apart and passed reclamation onto the state in the three decades that self-bonding has been an option. State regulators in recent years said that they wanted to keep self-bonding as an option, part of a broad portfolio of options from traditional insurance to using property or equipment as collateral.

Still, the debate heated up during coal’s downturn in 2015 and 2016, when large coal firms filed for bankruptcy. The coal sector, a long-term bedrock of Wyoming’s economy, changed dramatically in a short period of time. Production fell by one-quarter and almost 1,000 full-time mine employees in the Powder River Basin lost their jobs.

That sector has recovered from the bottom of the bust, but is not expected to return to historic norms of robust employment and consistent growth. Coal faces a number of headwinds in years to come as cheap natural gas continues to outcompete coal in the electricity market and renewables are taking more of the power share every year.

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Proposed updates from the Department of Environmental Quality surprised many late last year by greatly limiting self-bonding going forward. Though technically still possible, the proposed rules stated companies would need a high credit rating from a financial firm like Moody’s Investor Service.

Given uncertainties in the coal market post-downturn, qualifying under the proposed rules is unlikely even for Wyoming’s largest and most financially healthy coal firms like Peabody Energy.

A number of mining companies noted that self-bonding was effectively off the table for them under the proposed changes. They also argued against a provision limiting self-bonding to mines that have at least 10 years of production left.

The board heard those complaints and has asked the Department of Environmental Quality to review its rules in light of the pushback.

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The board decision is not unusual in the rule-crafting process, said Keith Guille, spokesman for the department.

Essentially, there are still questions that the board would like explained, as well as some late comments from the public and industry that need to be answered, he said.

The board also requested that the department bring its economic advisor before them to explain the ratings system and why that was proposed in the rule.

Previously, state regulators looked at financial statements to gauge a company’s eligibility to self-bond. Using a rating from a firm like Moody’s would allow Wyoming regulators to look ahead at expected company health and anticipate potential company weaknesses, said Land Quality Administrator Kyle Wendtland in previous interviews with the Star-Tribune.

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The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners advocacy group, noted in its public comments on the proposed rules that there are a number of new pressures on the coal industry that make self-bonding more risky.

“The need to perfect Wyoming’s bonding rules will only grow,” the group opposing self-bonding wrote. “The risk of inadequate financial assurance practices continues to increase as smaller, less financially secure coal operators come into Wyoming and larger coal companies look to escape cleanup liability.”’

The Sierra Club also submitted comments supporting stricter rules on self-bonding.

Coal companies do not like the high bar proposed in the new rules. The rules go too far, industry says.

Peabody’s public comment notes that the proposed rules are “essentially eliminating self bond as a tool for the coal industry in Wyoming.”

Peabody, which owns the largest open surface mine in the country, North Antelope Rochelle, has replaced its self-bonds in Wyoming, part of the firms restructuring plan after bankruptcy. However, the firm’s leadership has said it would like to consider self-bonding again in the future.

Western Fuels, which operates the Dry Fork mine, said the rules don’t work for cooperatives like theirs. Company insolvency that dumps cleanup responsibility on the state is virtually impossible for a cooperative owned and operated mine, the company argued.

“We understand that there are some changes on the way for self-bonding rules,” Deti said. “As times change and economic conditions change, we simply believe operators should have (a self-bonding) option.”

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The rules have to clear the Land Quality board before moving to a hearing before the Environmental Quality Council. Both sides have noted that they will continue to fight for, or against, the proposed changes at the council if necessary.

The Environmental Quality Council is an independent board, appointed by the governor, that reviews new environmental regulations and hears contested cases. It came under fire during the recent legislative session for siding with the Powder River Basin Resource Council by rejecting a coal mine permit.

Some lawmakers suggested the council’s second-year budget should be eliminated in light of the decision until the council had reported to lawmakers and the Department of the Environmental Quality on its efficiency. That funding was restored in the final state budget.


Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Pat Horner finishes shoveling snow off the walkway to her house Wednesday morning in central Casper. "It actually feels nice out," Horner said about the spring snow.


Casper
Casper police to wear body cameras

Officers with the Casper Police Department will likely begin wearing body cameras this summer in an effort to increase police transparency.

Police are under more public scrutiny than ever before, Chief Keith McPheeters told the Casper City Council during Tuesday’s work session. There is a “bona fide need” to have recordings of officers’ interactions with citizens.

“One of the primary tools that we have to advance that effort is the use of body-worn cameras,” he said.

McPheeters explained that wearing cameras is standard practice for patrol officers throughout the country. The police’s patrol vehicles have been equipped with cameras since 2004, but he said those are outdated and need an upgrade.

The chief roughly estimated that implementing these changes will cost $1 million, which he suggested could be covered by the 1-cent funding that the city is already planning to allocate to the department.

Pointing out that it’s important to keep up with new technology, Councilman Chris Walsh— a former police chief—said he thought these were reasonable requests.

Former county judge and the newest member of Council, Michael Huber, also supported the idea, but said officers should not rely on their cameras to the point of forgetting to make their own observations. Police should not become overly dependent on technology because it sometimes fails.

“That’s a bad, sloppy practice,” he said.

McPheeters agreed and said that concern could be addressed.

Noting that the Council is entrusted with protecting the public, Councilman Dallas Laird also approved.

“I think this adds to their safety,” he said.

The rest of the Council agreed and gave direction for the request to move forward.

McPheeters, who had been the deputy police chief in New Mexico, said Wednesday that this equipment was used at his previous office and proved to be invaluable on many occasions.

One officer escorted a suspect to the hospital and was briefly left alone with the man, whose handcuffs had been removed so he could receive treatment, McPheeters recalled. The suspect launched a “vicious attack” on the officer, who shot and tasered the man in self-defense.

This incident could have become controversial, but McPheeters said the community understood the officer’s situation because the department shared the footage from his body camera.

The chief said citizens with concerns regarding a personal interaction with police would also be able to come to the station and view the footage.

“It protects the citizens and it protects the police,” he said.

The use of body cameras increased nationwide after a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown—an unarmed teenager— in 2014. The incident garnered national scrutiny and led more police departments to purchase the technology.

Officers in Mills started wearing body cameras in 2015, making the department one of the first in the state, and the first in Natrona County, to use them.

The Casper Police Department considered using body cameras in 2016 but then-police chief Jim Wetzel ultimately nixed the idea.

“I think it’s prudent to sit back and wait and see where some of these things lead,” Wetzel said at the time.

McPheeters has pushed for various changes within the department since his appointment in December.

In an attempt to increase police applications and attract more experienced cops, the chief proposed an incentive plan last week— which was approved by Council— that will pay new officers up to $12,500 for joining the department.

The department’s average officer currently has less than five years on the job and the force is routinely understaffed.

Last month, he expressed concerns that the city’s disciplinary system for liquor license holders who commit infractions is too lenient and advised the Council to re-examine it.

McPheeters also previously told the Star-Tribune that he’s working to improve how the department handles victims’ services, particularly regarding sexual assault cases.


Washington
AP
Trump is hopeful, but some skeptical ahead of US-NK talks

WASHINGTON — An enigmatic North Korean leader takes a secretive train trip to China to affirm fraternal ties and declare a commitment to denuclearization.

It sounds like Kim Jong Un's visit this week, but his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il made similar declarations on a trip to Beijing, months before he died in 2011. Yet North Korea's nuclear weapons development only speeded up.

President Donald Trump expressed optimism Wednesday after the younger Kim's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying there's "a good chance" that Kim will "do what is right for his people and for humanity." But there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that the U.S.-North Korean summit slated for May will produce the breakthrough that Washington wants.

Meanwhile, increased activity at a North Korean nuclear site has once again caught the attention of analysts and renewed concerns about the complexities of denuclearization talks as Trump prepares for a summit with Kim.

Satellite imagery taken last month suggests the North has begun preliminary testing of an experimental light water reactor and possibly brought another reactor online at its Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center.

Both could be used to produce the fissile materials needed for nuclear bombs.

Also, Officials from North Korea and South Korea arrived today for talks in Paju, South Korea, to prepare for an April summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

After a year of escalating tensions, Trump agreed to talks after South Korean officials relayed that Kim was committed to ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and was willing to halt nuclear and missile tests. 

That has tamped down fears of war that elevated as Trump and Kim traded threats and insults and North Korea demonstrated it was close to being able to strike the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile.

Kim's meeting with Xi offered some reassurance to Washington that "denuclearization" will be up for negotiation if the first summit between American and North Korean leaders in seven decades of animosity takes place.

But while Trump has elevated expectations of what that sit-down would achieve, North Korea has yet to spell out what it wants in return for abandoning a weapons program that Kim likely views as a guarantee for the survival of his totalitarian regime.

The readout of Kim's remarks to Xi as reported by China's state news agency Xinhua strongly indicates Pyongyang is looking for significant American concessions.

"The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved," Kim was quoted as saying, "if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace."

To many North Korea watchers, that sounds like old wine in a new bottle.

In May 2011, the elder Kim, who was making what would be his final trip to China, told then-president Hu Jintao that the North was "adhering to the goal of denuclearization."

That came months after North Korea had revealed a uranium enrichment plant that gave it a second path for making fuel for atomic bombs.

Abraham Denmark, a former senior U.S. defense official, said the North's latest offer to "denuclearize" still appears contingent on U.S. creating the right conditions. In the past, Pyongyang demanded that U.S. withdraw troops from the peninsula, end its security alliance with South Korea and the nuclear protection it offers its ally.

"It's possible that Kim Jong Un has a different meaning in mind," said Denmark, now director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center think tank. "So far it sounds like the same old tune."

Ending six years of international seclusion, Kim was spirited into Beijing by special train under tight security like his father before him. He met with Xi, seeking to repair relations that have been frayed as China has supported tough U.N. sanctions and slashed trade with its wayward ally.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Kim's first foreign trip was a "historic step in the right direction" and proof that U.S.-led campaign of "maximum pressure" of economic sanctions was working. Trump said that the pressure would be maintained for now, but offered an optimistic view of how he could achieve peace and denuclearization that eluded past administrations.

"Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting!"

There's another way of looking at it.

It could be North Korea not the U.S. that is calling the shots. When Kim offered an olive branch to South Korea in the new year, he also warned that the entire U.S. was within range of the North's atomic weapons. With that capability in hand, he may now going on a diplomatic offensive, using it as leverage to win aid and security guarantees rather than with an intent of giving it up.

Trump's own choice as national security adviser John Bolton is famously skeptical of diplomacy with North Korea. Just a month ago, he made the case for a pre-emptive military strike on the North. That raises questions about whether he might advocate for the same should Trump's summit with Kim fail.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday he's worried that in his talks with Kim, Trump will focus on the intercontinental missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland and not the shorter-range missiles that threaten Japan and may "end up accepting North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons."


Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Former Wyoming fullback Drew Van Maanen runs a route for quarterback Josh Allen on Friday, March 23, 2018 during Wyoming's Pro Day in Laramie.


Casper
Dragged down by number of premature deaths, Natrona County ranks among least healthy counties in Wyoming

Natrona County is one of the least healthy counties in Wyoming, dragged down by a high number of premature deaths and other health factors, according to a new national study.

Of the state’s 23 counties, only Uinta, Carbon and Fremont rank worse than Natrona. While Wyoming’s central county was given high marks for its clinical care options and physical environment, it was dragged down by the other four factors in the study, conducted by the University of Wisconsin.

For social and economic factors — like graduation rate (under 80 percent), unemployment (7.1 percent) and injury deaths (99) — Natrona County ranked 22nd. It was 18th for health behaviors, like teen births (38 per 1,000 young women) and sexually transmitted infections (409.2). Quality of life was 20th in the state.

Teton County was ranked the most healthy in Wyoming, with top marks in four of six categories and a runner-up finish in another. It was followed by Sublette, Crook, Weston and Park counties.

Another recent study found Wyoming ranked 31st in health overall.

In Natrona County, a number of the statistics are concerning, said Jerry Spegman, a spokesperson for the study. But particularly alarming is the county’s number of premature deaths. The stat is calculated as years of life lost based on a target age of 75. So if a man dies at 50, the study considers that 25 years of life lost.

In Wyoming, the average is 7,400 years lost. The best counties in the nation average 5,300. In Natrona County, it’s 8,300.

“That number is quite high,” Spegman said Wednesday. “But it makes you think that there’s a significant number of younger people in the county dying. Then the question becomes, what’s going on there?”

Statewide, the number of deaths of younger Wyomingites has been documented before. A national study from June found the state had the highest teen death rate in the nation, and the report ranked the Equality State last for childhood health in 2015.

Spegman said there may be a number of factors contributing to the premature deaths: Wyoming has a high suicide rate, for instance, and Natrona County has a higher-than-average overdose death rate, according to the study.

The University of Wisconsin study also noted the county’s high teen birth rate, calculated as the number of births per 1,000 women age 15 to 19. The statewide average is 32, and the best counties in the U.S. are at 15. But Natrona County has 38 births per 1,000 young women.

The same goes for sexually transmitted infections. Across the state, the average is 348.7. Here, it’s 409.2.

The health numbers could be surprising to some, given Natrona County’s high concentration of health facilities. Casper is home to the second-largest hospital in the state, Wyoming Medical Center, along with two specialty hospitals and a number of other providers across various specialties.

That access to care is rewarded with a seventh ranking for clinical care. But Spegman said it didn’t help the county’s overall ranking because it was weighted less than other factors, like health behaviors.

“That’s where the problems are,” he said.

There was some good news, though: The county’s adult smoking rate of 17 percent was below the state average of 19 percent, and the excessive drinking rate of 20 percent — while trailing the national average by seven points — was still even with statewide levels.

Spegman said that if the county’s smoking rates were higher, it would likely be even lower in the rankings.

What’s to be done to better these figures? Spegman said the study hopes to spark those conversations among local leaders and health care providers. But it can’t be localized to health, he said; poverty goes hand and hand with these numbers, for instance.

“Our country has achieved significant health improvements over the past century,” the study’s authors write. “But when you look closer, there are significant differences in health outcomes according to where we live, how much money we make or how we are treated,” the study’s authors write, after noting the U.S. has made improvements overall.

“There are definitely some stories to be told here,” Spegman said of Natrona County. “If you’re going to improve it, you can’t just look at the sort of traditional indicators like good hospitals, good nurses, good doctors.”