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EPA head Scott Pruitt visits major Wyoming coal mine, preaches end of 'war on fossil fuels'

Two days after a crowd of 300 gathered in Gillette to debate the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate emissions at the cost of the coal industry, the head of that agency stood 20 miles away in one of the largest surface coal mines in the country: Black Thunder.

Scott Pruitt, the controversial leader of the EPA, came to Wyoming at the invitation of Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi to see the coal industry first hand. The state provides about 40 percent of the thermal coal burned in the U.S. for power and would be uniquely affected by a carbon dioxide rule like the Clean Power Plan.

The rule’s goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions in the electricity sector by about 30 percent compared to 2005 levels would have pressured utilities that buy Wyoming coal, wiping away customers that the coal industry around Wright and Gillette depend on.

Those in favor of the rule are largely concerned about emissions’ contribution to climate change. Those opposed see it as an attack on the coal industry.

Pruitt echoed that sentiment in an interview after touring Black Thunder. He said it was time for the agency to reverse what he described as a political attack on the fossil fuel industry. The review of the Clean Power Plan, a signature regulation from the Obama administration, is part of that, he said.

“Our job is not to coerce markets,” Pruitt said. “Our job is not to come in and say this type of fuel is good or this fuel is not good.”

The EPA’s regulations and guidelines should follow behind industry choices, not dictate them, he said.

President Donald Trump, who appointed Pruitt, made repealing the emissions-cutting plan a central tenet of his campaign, promising a return of coal jobs.

Pruitt said Thursday the final decision on the Clean Power Plan is not certain. The agency would review the new round of comments on repeal and move forward.

“What we are in the process of doing is providing regulatory certainty,” he said. “Then we need to look forward and say what authority do we have?”

However, Pruitt also said the Clean Power Plan appeared to be outside the bounds of the agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act.

That is a position shared by others present at the mine Thursday including the senators, Gillette mayor Louise Carter King, Campbell County Commissioner Mark Christensen and the mayor of nearby Wright, Ralph Kingan.

“We cannot allow this incredible resource to be stranded in the ground,” Barrasso said. “There is just so much energy here.”

Enzi, once the mayor of Gillette, thanked Pruitt for coming in person. It’s one thing to tell people about the size and scope of a mine like Black Thunder, owned by Arch Coal. But a visit to coal country, he said, “is worth a thousand pictures.”

Guides, anglers question Casper BLM's proposal increasing guiding permits on North Platte

One of the most popular stretches of river to fish in the state winds from Gray Reef Reservoir to a place called Lusby on the North Platte River.

It carries about 4,000 fish per mile, also making it one of the fishiest sections of river in the state. Thousands of fisherman wet their lines each year in its water.

The Bureau of Land Management offers commercial permits for fishing outfitters on that stretch of river, which allows guides to anchor on the river bottom or pull to shore on BLM land.

There are currently 21 permits from Gray Reef to Casper. The BLM is considering adding more.

While the Wyoming Game and Fish Department says increasing angler numbers will likely not harm the fishery itself, many of the guides on the river question the wisdom of adding yet more boats and rods to a stretch of river that is already crowded.

“I just don’t agree with adding more traffic or giving people a reason to add more traffic to the river,” said Trent Tatum, co-owner of The Reef Fly Shop and North Platte Lodge. “In a perfect world, we have clear water to Casper all spring. That’s almost never the case, and in the springtime because of the rainbow [trout] spawn and because of water conditions, the dam to Lusby takes a brunt of the fishing pressure, because that is the option people have.”


The BLM set a moratorium in 2006 on commercial guiding permits on the Gray Reef section of the river, said Tammy Owens, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM’s Casper Field Office. It stated that no more permits could be offered until the BLM had adequately surveyed the river to determine its carrying capacity.

But the federal agency never received funding for the study, and so after more than a decade, BLM has decided to ask the public what it wants.

“A lot of it is the North Platte River and the reputation it has for the amazing fishing it provides,” Owens said. “We have folks who are wanting to use BLM public lands and facilities to be able to commercially benefit from that river and be able to boost the economy and provide for their families.”

BLM charges outfitters at least $110 each year or up to 1.8 percent of their gross income on areas where they’re using BLM facilities. In 2017, the fees generated $30,000, which went to enhancement and maintenance of the river, she said.

For its part, Game and Fish does not believe that adding anglers to that stretch of river will hurt the overall fish population, said Jeff Glaid, a Game and Fish fisheries biologist for the Casper region.

Most anglers catch and release trout below Gray Reef Dam, and since hooking mortality is low, he said more fishermen shouldn’t decrease the number of fish.

“It becomes a social issue, but I can’t comment on that,” Glaid said, adding that Game and Fish manages populations of fish, not numbers of anglers.


Tatum, the guide service co-owner, did comment on the social aspect. While he acknowledged that he runs one of the larger guiding services on the river, he said adding more boats would hurt the user experience.

“At the end of the day, we make a living off of it, so the public has to be considered,” he said. “The people paying, the other guide boats and the public, we all want a good experience and part of the experience is not being jam packed on top of each other.”

If BLM needs more money, Tatum said the agency could consider increasing the standard $110 fee for each existing permit.

Increasing the number of permits might not necessarily up the number of guides on the river, Owens said. Neither boat ramp at Gray Reef or Lusby require permits to use since they aren’t managed by BLM, which means some guides without permits are already using the ramps and not stopping on BLM ground in between. Changing the permits would simply allow them to stop with their clients, she said.

John Bailey, a retired Casper surgeon and avid angler, agrees that more permits will likely not mean more boats on the river, which is why he doesn’t understand why BLM is pursuing more licenses.

No matter what, he said, boats will continue to increase on that stretch of river until the user experience is so poor people will stop coming.

“The program they outlined to me did not seem to be well thought out yet,” he said. “There are a lot of guides who float that stretch of river that don’t have permits and won’t be checked and once they launch won’t be stopped. So why buy a permit for a guy who isn’t buying a permit now?”

Another local angler, John Dolan, believes adding more licenses will increase the number of people on a stretch of river that simply can’t handle that many more lines.

He read a letter he submitted to the BLM at a recent public meeting on the issue, detailing his more than 30 years on the water and previous positions with Trout Unlimited and the Wyoming Fly Casters.

He’s seen 40 to 60 boat trailers at the Lusby access point alone, he said.

“To increase the licenses and thereby increasing fishing/traffic pressure is sheer folly and faulty logic.”

BLM doesn’t have a proposed number of permits to add or a timeline for making a decision. Public comment is due in writing to BLM by April 13, Owens said.

“Every year we get requests. We’re attempting to respond to the demand for additional permits while trying to balance the recreational user, the John Q. Public going down and trying to fly-fish or throw a boat in the river as well,” Owens said. “At what point are we at capacity?”

Russia responds quid pro quo to diplomats' expulsions

MOSCOW — Russia announced the expulsion of more than 150 diplomats, including 60 Americans, on Thursday and said it was closing a U.S. consulate in retaliation for the wave of Western expulsions of Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in Britain, a tit-for-tat response that intensified the Kremlin's rupture with the United States and Europe.

The Russian move came as a hospital treating Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, said the woman was improving rapidly and was now in stable condition, though her father remained in critical condition.

The Skripals were found unconscious and critically ill in the English city of Salisbury on March 4. British authorities blamed Russia for poisoning them with a military-grade nerve agent, accusations Russia has vehemently denied.

Two dozen countries, including the U.S., many EU nations and NATO, have ordered more than 150 Russian diplomats out this week in a show of solidarity with Britain — a massive action unseen even at the height of the Cold War.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at news conference Thursday that Moscow will expel the same number of diplomats from each of those countries in retaliation.

U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman was summoned to the Foreign Ministry while Lavrov was speaking, where he was handed notice that Russia is responding quid pro quo to the U.S. decision to order 60 Russian diplomats out.

In a statement, Huntsman said there was "no justification" for the move and that it shows Moscow isn't interested in dialogue with the United States about important matters.

"Russia should not be acting like a victim," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Later, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Russia's action was "not unanticipated," but she said the retaliation by Moscow "marks a further deterioration in the United States-Russia relationship."

The Foreign Ministry said the U.S. diplomats, including 58 from the embassy in Moscow and two from the consulate in Yekaterinburg, must leave Russia by April 5. It added that the U.S. must leave its consulate in St. Petersburg no later than Saturday.

The ministry warned that if the U.S. takes further "hostile actions" against Russian missions, Russia will respond in kind.

"We invite the U.S. authorities who are encouraging a slanderous campaign against our country to come back to their senses and stop thoughtless actions to destroy bilateral relations," it said.

Lavrov emphasized that the expulsions followed "brutal pressure" from the U.S. and Britain, which forced their allies to "follow the anti-Russian course."

Britain's national security adviser Mark Sedwill told reporters during a trip to Washington that the attack was part of Russia's "hybrid warfare" that operates below the level of armed conflict.

The coordinated expulsions of Russian intelligence officers, he said, were a "coherent approach by the Western alliance to a range of aggressive Russian behavior, of which the attack in Salisbury was just the latest, obviously very acute, example."

Lavrov said Moscow called a meeting Wednesday of the secretariat of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to discuss the case.

Meanwhile, Salisbury NHS Trust, which oversees the hospital where the Skripals are being treated, said Thursday that 33-year-old Yulia is "improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition. Her condition is now stable."

"She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day," said Dr. Christine Blanshard, medical director at Salisbury District Hospital.

Sergei Skripal, 66, remains in critical condition, the hospital said.

Lavrov said that Russia would seek consular access to Yulia Skripal now that she has regained consciousness.

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was imprisoned after he sold secrets to British intelligence. He was released in a 2010 spy swap and moved to Britain.

Britain says he and his daughter, who was visiting from Russia, were poisoned with a nerve agent developed in Soviet times and that must have come from Russia.

Police say they were likely exposed to the poison on the door of Sergei Skripal's suburban home in Salisbury.

About 250 British counterterrorism officers are working on the investigation.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday that Britain's allegation of Russian involvement in the poisoning was a "swindle" and an "international provocation." She said Russia continued to demand access to investigation materials, which Britain has refused to share.

Britain and its allies have dismissed previous Russian claims that they possessed that type of nerve agent.

Despite the tensions with Washington, Russia is eager for a proposed meeting of President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump.

A prominent Russian lawmaker said Moscow's expulsion of U.S. diplomats could aid that meeting because both sides would be on an equal basis.

"It doesn't create very happy circumstances around a prospective meeting, but this shouldn't influence the meeting per se, the fact of it occurring," Dmitry Novikov, deputy chairman of the foreign relations committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, told the Interfax news agency.

Lawyers divided on proper police response after Casper woman found in trunk

A Casper police detective spotted a suspected burglar and auto thief on March 20 outside Eastridge mall.

Police gave chase. The suspect, Kyle Martin, drove the car into some mud and got stuck. He jumped out of the car, locked it and took off running.

Police caught up with him and impounded the vehicle, taping it up to preserve evidence while waiting for a search warrant.

Hours later, someone called police dispatch and told them to look in the vehicle.

Officers opened the trunk and found a 95-year-old woman bound with duct tape. She was taken to Wyoming Medical Center where she remained hospitalized Wednesday.

Police said they didn’t open the trunk before impounding the vehicle because they didn’t want to risk compromised evidence in the investigation. Instead, they sealed the vehicle and sought a search warrant.

Four Wyoming lawyers generally agreed that police in this case were not legally required to handle the situation any differently. However, the lawyers disagreed about what police should have done.

Both Steven Titus of Gillette and Don Fuller of Casper said that although it is not required by law, police should always inventory a car before impounding it. Officers performing such an inventory would have presumably found the woman.

Police regularly inventory vehicles following DUI arrests, Fuller said. When a vehicle is involved in a chase, an inventory is entirely expected, and a judge would likely allow any evidence of a crime found during that inventory, he said.

Law enforcement officers are not necessarily required to perform an inventory before impounding a vehicle, Fuller said, but doing so is a good practice.

“They didn’t seem to be in any hurry to (get a warrant),” Fuller said.

The woman found in the trunk was suffering from rhabdomyolysis, Prosecutor Nathan Shumway said at a March 21 court hearing. Rhabdomyolysis is a medical condition characterized by the breakdown of muscles and the release of ensuing toxins into the bloodstream. It can cause kidney damage or failure.

After the hearing, Shumway declined to say how the woman had developed the condition.

It was unclear if the Casper Police Department had exposed itself to a civil lawsuit by not conducting an inventory, Titus said. Nevertheless, the police department did not need to wait for a search warrant before going through a vehicle when it was involved in a pursuit.

“They don’t need a search warrant to inventory a vehicle,” Titus said. “The cops could have done more and been on constitutionally safe grounds.”

Tom Fleener, a Laramie criminal defense lawyer, said he was not familiar with the facts of the case, but, speaking generally, he said it is not unusual for police to seal a car without performing an inventory. In such cases, police will typically request a warrant and leave the car sealed so evidence will not be disturbed before forensic investigators conduct a search.

Frank Chapman, a Casper lawyer, said police did the right thing by not opening the trunk of the vehicle. Because police did not know the vehicle was stolen and did not have reason to believe a person was in the trunk, it was appropriate to wait and apply for a warrant, he said.

“I don’t think there’s any reasonable basis to look in that trunk (upon arresting Martin),” Chapman said. “Cops have a tough enough job to be taking s—- for stuff like this.”

Police Chief Keith McPheeters said officers acted appropriately, but the department will look into changes in procedures to prevent a similar incident in the future. He said any changes would closely consider both public safety and constitutional protections against illegal searches.

“It is a very fine tap dance that we need to do,” he said.

Before receiving a phone call and checking the trunk, police did not have any reason to believe Martin was committing any crimes other than burglary, auto theft and eluding police, McPheeters said.

He referred to the case as legally “problematic” because prosecutors generally prefer search warrants, even when inventories or probable cause searches are allowable.

“In my experience, no reasonable professional ... would have said: ‘Absolutely, crack into that vehicle without a warrant’,” McPheeters said.

McPheeters said the victim did not give him permission to discuss her medical condition. He praised the work of detectives who tracked down Martin. McPheeters said the woman could have died were it not for the work of the investigations division — and some outside help.

“The hand of providence is involved in this, without question,” McPheeters said.

Martin faces six felonies: aggravated kidnapping, conspiracy to commit aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery, conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary and conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary. A conviction on either of the kidnapping charges is punishable by up to life imprisonment.

He is being in lieu of $500,000 bond.