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Wyoming miners noted large slabs had fallen from coal face days before worker's death

Miners at the Jim Bridger underground coal mine told federal regulators that large slabs of coal had fallen from the wall in the days before Jaime Olivas died from internal injuries sustained after being buried under a rolled slab of coal.

Those comments were among a number of details that were were not included in a state report about the incident published in February. State and federal inspectors performed a joint investigation into Olivas’ death that included company and union representatives. The federal report was released this week.

Both agencies ultimately cited the mine for failing to secure roofs and walls from hazards when workers are present.

“To me, Bridger did everything right,” State Mine Inspector, Terry Adcock, said in February, explaining that an incident like this had not happened before.

Adcock said in an interview Wednesday that he did not personally recall interviews that noted earlier rib falls. He also said details of prior rib falls would have needed to be specific and verified to warrant putting in the state report.

“I can’t speak for the MSHA folks,” he said. “I have to be able to prove and document everything that I put in [the state report].”


Much of the federal report mirrors the results of the state investigation but it contains more details gleaned from miner interviews, including that three miners told investigators that large slabs of coal had rolled in the area. One miner noted that coal had fallen three days before.

The incident, which occurred while removing longwall equipment, could have been prevented by using greater safety measures to protect miners in a similar situation, federal regulators concluded. The company submitted moderate changes to their existing roof and wall safety protocol. Removal of longwall equipment will now require a site-specific plan for securing the roof and walls, such as securing the wall face with mesh to prevent coal rolls when removing longwall equipment.

Federal regulators also cited the company for not reporting the incident within 15 minutes.

More background

The federal report also includes additional details of the events of Sept. 28.

It reads that Olivas, 39, was standing between 8 and 10 feet from the coal face that afternoon. The foreman had recently affirmed that the area was clear of hazards and noted that air and gas measurements were normal.

Olivas was using a pole to untangle a mesh covering being bolted into the roof to protect workers from falling rock. Mining in the area was complete, and Olivas, a 10-year underground mining veteran, was assisting in the process of extracting longwall mining equipment from the area.

A small chunk of coal, about 2 feet-by-2 feet, fell from the wall and Olivas began backing away from the face, according to the report from Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Then, a large slab of coal broke free from the coal face, completely covering Olivas.

The state report noted that there had been no sign of an impending coal roll, which can reveal itself in popping sounds or visible cracks and fissures in the face.

Three of Olivas’ fellow miners uncovered Olivas, according to the federal report. He complained of pain in his back, shoulder and arm. Two more miners arrived. The five men carried Olivas by stretcher to a nearby crossroads in the mine to await an underground ambulance.

Olivas was then taken to the surface, and transferred to a highway ambulance. The highway ambulance left the mine site at 3:12 p.m., 42 minutes after the underground ambulance was dispatched to retrieve Olivas from the scene of the accident.

An emergency medical technician checked Olivas’ pulse in the ambulance, but found none. The EMT began CPR. He also used a defibrillator, which can a shock a heart that is spasming towards cardiac arrest in order to restore natural rhythm. The defibrillator did not advise a shock.

Paramedics from Sweetwater County were called to assist and the company ambulance met county medics at an exit off Interstate 80.

About 40 minutes later, medics contacted an Emergency Room physician who pronounced the miner dead.

Company officials noted in earlier interviews that they had not called in a helicopter to transport Olivas to the nearby hospital because it could take longer. They did not immediately suspect life-threatening injuries, because Olivas was conscious and talking after the incident.

The federal report found that Olivas was well-trained for his position. He had worked at the underground mine since 2008 and began working on the longwall in 2014.

He was the only coal miner to die on the job in Wyoming in 2017.

A representative from the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers declined to comment on the report. A representative for Rocky Mountain Power, the subsidiary of Pacifcorp that operates the mine, said the company was evaluating the federal citation and penalty.

“Bridger Coal Company is always working to improve employee safety and the operations at the mine and will continue to take measures to ensure the safety of employees,” said spokesman David Eskelsen.

Bridger is the sole underground coal mine operating in Wyoming. It employs 218 people. The mine is owned in part by PacifiCorp, a large western utility. The coal feeds the nearby Jim Bridger power plant, which is also owned by PacifiCorp.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Steven Iberlin helps his dad, Mark, and brother, Lee, move a flock of about 3,000 sheep through a pasture Wednesday on their ranch outside Wright. The family has owned the ranch for about 30 years. Steven is working part-time as a ranch hand while he waits to hear back about his results on the bar exam. 

Wyoming's first large solar farm edges forward

Wyoming’s first large solar farm may come to Green River soon. The proposed 80-megawatt farm moved forward Tuesday with the release of an environmental assessment of the project by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Sweetwater Solar Energy Project would be the first utility-scale solar project on Bureau of Land Management land in the state. It would lie about 10 miles outside of Green River on both sides of State Highway 372.

If some other proposals don’t beat it to the operation, Sweetwater will be the first large, utility-scale solar farm providing power in the Cowboy State. Some smaller solar projects on the western side of the state are operated by utility Lower Valley Energy and the city of Jackson.

The 80-megawatt farm would have the capacity to power about 17,000 homes and cover about one square mile of public land. During a six-month construction phase, the project would create about 150 jobs. Tax revenue from the farm is estimated at $421,200 for Sweetwater County and about $600,000 for the state, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

Wyoming relies predominately on coal for its power needs given the low cost of shipping Wyoming coal to in-state power plants. Coal mining is a key economic driver in the state, but the industry has been struggling in recent years as low natural gas prices drove the construction of more gas-fired power in the U.S.

The coal sector has also been hurt by growing renewable power in the U.S. Wyoming’s renewable footprint is almost completely wind power right now. The state is home to some of the best high wind areas in the country and wind power remains cheaper to develop than solar. The introduction of a wind tax appeared to slow new wind development in the state in recent years, but an approaching sunset of federal tax credits for wind is spurring new development of large wind farms.

Sweetwater Solar LLC, a subsidiary of South Korean corporate conglomerate Hanwha Group, filed a power purchase agreement with Wyoming’s largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power, in April of 2016 with hopes to begin construction as early as last year. The utility also signed a purchase agreement with another solar provider, Sage Solar, last year. Operations dates for Sage were confidential.

The Sweetwater proposal is up for public comment until April 24.

Trump puts off Syria strike decision, will talk to allies

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday put off a final decision on possible military strikes against Syria after tweeting earlier that they could happen "very soon or not so soon at all." The White House said he would consult further with allies.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned such an attack carried the risk of spinning out of control, suggesting caution ahead of a decision on how to respond to an attack against civilians last weekend that U.S. officials are increasingly certain involved the use of banned chemical weapons. British officials said up to 75 people were killed.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a brief statement after Trump met with Mattis and other members of his National Security Council: "No final decision has been made. We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies."

Sanders said Trump would speak later with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

The Security Council scheduled another emergency meeting for this morning at Russia's request.

Although Mattis noted that military action carried risks, he also emphasized that Syrian use of chemical weapons should not be tolerated. And he insisted it remains U.S. policy not to be involved directly in Syria's civil war.

"Our strategy remains the same as a year ago," he said. "It is to drive this to a U.N.-brokered peace but, at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it," referring to the Islamic State extremist group.

Mattis' remarks at a House Armed Services Committee hearing followed a series of Trump tweets this week that initially indicated he was committed to bombing Syria but later suggested he was awaiting further advice and assessment. Trump wrote in a Thursday morning tweet that an attack could happen "very soon or not so soon at all."

Later Thursday he was noncommittal. "We're looking very, very seriously, very closely at the whole situation," he told reporters.

Mattis said options would be discussed with Trump at a meeting of his National Security Council on Thursday afternoon. That meant airstrikes, possibly in tandem with France and other allies that have expressed outrage at the alleged Syrian chemical attack, could be launched within hours of a presidential decision.

Meanwhile, a team of inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog was on its way to Syria on Thursday to begin an investigation into the chemical weapons attack that has brought the war-torn country to the brink of a wider conflict, amid Western threats of retaliation and Russian warnings of the potential for "a dangerous escalation."

The fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was expected to head to Douma, where the suspected attack took place and where Russia said rebels had now capitulated to government control. The Syrian government said it would facilitate the mission's investigation, which was to begin Saturday.

Syria and its ally, Russia, deny any such attack, which activists say killed more than 43 people last weekend.

Speaking at the United Nations on Thursday, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the top priority had to be to avert a wider war, and he didn't rule out the possibility of a U.S.-Russia conflict. Speaking to reporters after a closed emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Nebenzia said Russia was very concerned with "the dangerous escalation" of the situation and "aggressive policies" and preparations that some governments were making — a clear reference to the Trump administration and its allies.

The U.S., France and Britain have been in extensive consultations about launching a military strike as early as the end of this week, U.S. officials have said. A joint military operation, possibly with France rather than the U.S. in the lead, could send a message of international unity about enforcing the prohibitions on chemical weapons.

Macron said Thursday that France has proof that the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks and said France would not tolerate "regimes that think everything is permitted."

After May met with her Cabinet, a spokesperson issued a statement saying it is highly likely that Syria's President Bashar Assad was responsible for Saturday's attack that killed dozens outside Damascus. The Cabinet agreed on the need to "take action" to deter further chemical weapons use by Assad, but added that May would continue to consult with allies to coordinate an international response.

Mattis said that although the United States has no hard proof, he believes the Syrian government was responsible for Saturday's attack. Initial reports indicated the use of chlorine gas, possibly in addition to the nerve agent Sarin. Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told NBC News on Thursday the administration has "enough proof" of the chemical attack but was still considering its response.

Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune  

Coffee art graces a finished latte at the Pour House in Casper.

Four staffers at Natrona County assessor's office lose their jobs after new assessor takes reins

Newly appointed Natrona County assessor Tammy Saulsbury fired four employees on her first day — a move that the former staffers believe was retaliation for supporting a different applicant.

Saulsbury declined to comment Monday about the incident. County attorney Eric Nelson said Monday that he couldn’t provide details about the situation.

“Since these are personnel issues we can’t comment on them,” he said.

Angelina Martinez, Joann Grisham, Ashley Wiese and Shannan Robinett said they were fired by Saulsbury at about 4 p.m. on April 2. They were given about an hour to collect their belongings and turn in their keys and badges. None were given a reason for their dismissal.

“They didn’t give us time to ask any questions,” said Grisham.

The staffers were among a total of 14 employees who worked for the assessor’s office, which is responsible for providing Natrona County citizens with property assessments that comply with the statutory requirements established by the state.

Last month, former assessor Connie Smith announced her retirement effective March 31. She died April 2 at the Central Wyoming Hospice in Casper.

The Natrona County Republican Party selected three finalists for the position: Saulsbury, Robinett and Natrona County Commissioner Matt Keating. The county commissioners — with the exception of Keating — interviewed the candidates and unanimously selected Saulsbury last month.

Saulsbury previously served as the county’s chief deputy assessor.

“I congratulated her when she got it—I didn’t hold any grudge against her,” said Robinett.

But the former staffers said Monday that they believe Robinett was fired because she competed against Saulsbury for the position — and that the other three were fired because they had openly supported Robinett.

“We were let go because of her feelings, not because we didn’t do our jobs,” said Martinez.

Robinett said she worked for the assessor’s office for eight years, first as a field appraiser and most recently as a statistician. Wiese, Grisham and Martinez all worked as field appraisers.

The former county employees said they had never received any indication that their job performances were unsatisfactory. They have not yet decided whether they will take legal actions to protest their firings.

The assessor’s office was already plagued with problems — even prior to this controversy, according to Keating. The commissioner told the Star-Tribune last week that he ran for the position because the office is mismanaged, though others on the commission dispute his opinion.

“The assessor’s office is broken,” he said.

Keating said the office routinely overprices properties, which causes residents to pay more in taxes. Citizens can appeal the county’s assessment but they have to pay for an appraisal in order to argue that the initial figure was incorrect.

The commissioner said he’s concerned for taxpayers and believes the county’s citizens deserve better.

The former staffers said Monday that they were aware of Keating’s concerns but insisted the office had always followed the proper procedures.

“Nobody is ever happy with taxes,” said Robinett.

The leaders of the Board of Natrona County Commissioners said this week that they do not believe that the assessor’s office has acted improperly.

“At this time I have no reason to doubt that they aren’t trying to do their best to evaluate the properties under the [proper] requirements and standards,” said the board’s chairman John Lawson.

Forrest Chadwick, the board’s vice chairman, explained that the office follows procedures that are “dictated to them by statute.”

Lawson and Chadwick both declined to comment about the firings.

Although Saulsbury would not comment about the firings, she said Monday that she agreed with Keating’s concerns that some properties have been overvalued. She is unsure how many properties this effected but said she is looking into the matter.

“I was appointed the assessor on April 2 [and] what the previous administration had done prior to that I have no comment on,” she said.

Keating and Robinett are both planning to run for the assessor position when it is up for re-election this fall.