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Bridger Coal Company cited for violation in southwest Wyoming miner's death

Rocky Mountain Power has been cited for a state safety violation after part of a wall of coal collapsed in September and killed a miner in the Bridger Underground Coal Mine.

Jaime Olivas was untangling mesh during roof bolting, a practice that helps secure the roof from collapses and falling debris. Olivas was in front of an unsecured wall of coal.

Others miners working near Olivas say they heard a pop sound, before a chunk of the coal wall broke free and completely covered Olivas, according to an investigation by the Wyoming state inspector of mines.

Bridger Coal Company operates the underground mine on behalf of PacifiCorp, the parent company of Wyoming’s largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power. State officials found the company violated a regulation that mandates that roofs, ribs and walls must be secured in areas where miners are present.

“The employee was working in an area where the face was not supported or controlled to protect persons from the hazards related to fall of ribs or face,” the report states before suggesting corrective action.

“No work will be allowed in the pan line, except as necessary to support or protect the face until the face is secured in the work area,” the report states.

Representatives from Rocky Mountain Power did not respond to request for comment by press time.

State officials inspect the underground coal mine, which lies about 35 miles east of Rock Springs, twice a year. Federal regulators inspect the mine four times a year.

The state office does not have the authority to levy fines for health and safety violations, a spokeswoman for the department said. It issues citations and mandates changes to bring the mine into compliance.

The federal agency that oversees mining in the state, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, can issue penalties along with serious citations.

The federal investigation of the circumstances of Olivas’ death is not complete. A request for an update on the status of the investigation was not returned by press time.

Olivas died on the way to the hospital after the mine wall rolled onto him.

The 39-year-old Rock Springs resident was conscious and complaining of back pain before leaving the mine site in a company ambulance.

The company said in earlier interviews that they chose not to air lift the miner to the hospital out of concern it would take too long. The company employs state-certified emergency management technicians and emergency medical responders and has an onsite ambulance service.

Olivas went into cardiac arrest on the way to the Memorial Hospital in Rock Springs and was given CPR by mine medics, according to the state investigation.

The company ambulance pulled over a little under halfway to Rock Springs, where it was met by a local ambulance service, Sweetwater Medics. Sweetwater personnel took over at that point, and medics performed “advanced first aid,” according to the inspector’s report.

Olivas’s death was determined to be a result of multiple blunt force injuries, according to the report.

Olivas had been a miner for more than a decade, with nine years’ experience at the Bridger mine. At the time of his death, he was a longwall section operator. He had been in the position for about two years.

The state investigation was made available to Olivas’ family before it was made public.

The state investigation team of 22 people included the chapter president from the miner’s union, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the state mine inspector, Terry Adcock, and a number of officials from PacifiCorp, Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company. Federal officials from MSHA were also collaborators on the report.

Eight employees from Bridger Coal Company were interviewed for the investigation.

Casper city officials discussing seasonal closure for Fort Caspar Museum

There may be fewer opportunities to visit Fort Caspar Museum next fall.

City officials are discussing seasonal closures at the facility as part of an ongoing effort to reduce Casper’s spending, said City Manager Carter Napier. Staff members are working on a recommendation for the City Council and plan to present the proposal within the next three months.

The closure could occur during winter months, though officials are still working out the details.

The regional history museum features a reconstructed 1865 military post, as well as exhibits on prehistoric people, Plains Indians, ranching, the energy industry and frontier Army life.

At least two local history buffs are concerned about the potential seasonal closure.

“We will push to preserve the year-round access to that museum,” said Kem Nicolaysen, president of the Natrona County Historical Society.

Nicolaysen said he enjoyed school trips to the museum as a child and doesn’t want current students to lose opportunities to learn about local history.

“Wyoming winters can be a little tough so it’s nice to have a place inside for people [to visit],” he added.

Since a decision has not yet been reached, Con Trumbull, the president of the Fort Caspar Museum Association, said now is the time to for the museum’s supporters to voice their concerns to local leaders.

“We are just trying to open up discussions and show them how important this site is to Casper citizens and to our heritage,” he said.

About 25,000 people visit the museum annually, including 1,500 students, Trumbull said. In addition to exhibits, the facility also offers special activities such as ghost tours and a Candlelight Christmas event.

The city manager said Thursday that he agrees the museum offers valuable services to citizens but said the city needs to consider various options for cutting spending to reduce Casper’s reliance on state funding.

Wyoming’s local governments have limited means of raising funds, which leaves them largely dependent on appropriations from the state Legislature. Given that the state’s boom-or-bust economy relies heavily on the energy market, local leaders are often uncertain about the level of funding they can expect to receive.

The state generally allots $105 million for city and county governments, but many municipality leaders are worried this funding might be reduced. The Legislature is set to convene Monday, and lawmakers will consider the state’s budget amid an energy slowdown that’s meant less revenue.

Even if the local governments receive the money this year, Napier said it’s a never-ending cycle.

“In 12 months we will have the battle again,” he said.

Senate votes to reopen government, passes budget deal

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted early this morning to reopen the government and pass a $400 billion budget deal, handing the measure off to the House for a pre-dawn debate where success is not assured.

The vote was the first big step in a rush to pick up the pieces of a budget and spending plan that had seemed on track hours earlier. But the government stumbled into the shutdown, the second in three weeks, at midnight after a single senator mounted a protest over the budget-busting deal and refused to give in.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul put the brakes on Senate leaders' plan to drive the agreement quickly through the Senate, repeatedly blocking a Thursday vote and provoking colleagues' frustration. The budget agreement is married to a six-week temporary funding bill needed to keep the government operating and to provide time to implement the budget pact. Paul brushed off the pressure.

"I didn't come up here to be part of somebody's club. I didn't come up here to be liked," he said.

Once Paul time was up, the measure, backed by the Senate's top leaders, sailed through the chamber by a 71-28 vote. House leaders signaled that chamber would immediately take it up, though the situation was trickier there after liberal Democrats and tea party conservatives both swung into opposition.

The underlying bill includes huge spending increases sought by Republicans for the Pentagon along with a big boost demanded by Democrats for domestic agencies. Both sides pressed for $89 billion for disaster relief, extending a host of health care provisions, and extending a slew of smaller tax breaks.

It also would increase the government's debt cap, preventing a first-ever default on U.S. obligations that looms in just a few weeks. Such debt limit votes are usually enormous headaches for GOP leaders, but the increase means another vote won't occur before March 2019.

House leaders hustled to move before federal employees were due back at work, hoping to minimize the disruption. A shutdown essentially cuts the federal workforce in half, with those dubbed non-essential not allowed to work. Military and essential workers would remain on the job regardless.

The Trump administration signaled it expected the shutdown to be short, calling it a "lapse."

As the clock hit midnight, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney immediately issued an order to close non-essential government operations.

Mulvaney told federal agencies they should execute their contingency plans and instructed federal employees to report to work Friday to "undertake orderly shutdown activities."

At the White House, there appeared to be little sense of concern. Aides closed shop early Thursday night, with no comment on the display on the Hill. The president did not tweet. Vice President Mike Pence, in South Korea for the Winter Olympics, said the administration was "hopeful" the shutdown would not last long.

But frustrations were clear in both sides of the Capitol, where just hours earlier leaders had been optimistic that the budget deal was a sign they had left behind some of their chronic dysfunction. Senate Democrats sparked a three-day partial government shutdown last month by filibustering a spending bill, seeking relief for "Dreamer" immigrants who've lived in the country illegally since they were children.

House GOP leaders said they were confident they had shored up support among conservatives for the measure, which would shower the Pentagon with money but add hundreds of billions of dollars to the nation's $20 trillion-plus debt.

House Democratic leaders opposed the measure — arguing it should resolve the plight of Dreamers — but not with all their might. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked Speaker Paul Ryan in a Thursday night letter to promise he would bring an immigration measure sponsored by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Pete Aguilar, D-Texas, up for a vote.

Ryan didn't immediately respond. He said again Thursday he was determined to bring an immigration bill to the floor this year — albeit only one that has President Donald Trump's blessing.

At a late afternoon meeting of House Democrats, Pelosi made it plain she wasn't pressuring her colleagues to kill the bill, which is packed with money for party priorities like infrastructure, combating opioid abuse and helping college students.

Still, it represented a bitter defeat for Democrats who followed a risky strategy to use the party's leverage on the budget to address immigration and ended up scalded by last month's shutdown. Protection for the Dreamers under former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, expires next month.

Republicans were sheepish about the bushels of dollars for Democratic priorities and the return next year of $1 trillion-plus deficits. But they pointed to money they have long sought for the Pentagon, which they say needs huge sums for readiness, training and weapons modernization.

"It provides what the Pentagon needs to restore our military's edge for years to come," said Ryan.

Beyond $300 billion worth of increases for the military and domestic programs, the agreement adds $89 billion in overdue disaster aid for hurricane-slammed Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, a politically charged increase in the government's borrowing cap and a grab bag of health and tax provisions. There's also $16 billion to renew a slew of expired tax breaks that Congress seems unable to kill.

Wyoming lawmakers propose taxing solar, increasing wind tax

Lawmakers will again consider hiking Wyoming’s controversial wind tax, and this time they may expand it to include utility-scale solar facilities in the Cowboy State.

House Bill 118, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Crank, R-Kemmerer, proposes levying a $2 per megawatt hour tax on renewable energy produced in Wyoming, amending prior language that applied a $1 per megawatt hour tax on wind power. It’s among dozens of bills that lawmakers will consider when the Legislature convenes Monday in Cheyenne.

The measure also introduces a discount on those taxes. If a company manufactures and installs its wind or solar facilities in Wyoming, the cost of equipment may be subtracted from the tax bill.

Crank said he hoped the bill would entice manufacturers to Wyoming, allowing jobs and economic diversity to follow the expected boom of renewable development.

Wyoming is largely financially dependent on taxing its various fossil fuels resources, from coal and uranium, to oil and gas. It introduced a tax on power generated from its prime wind resources in 2012. New wind development slowed after the introduction of that tax, but is expected to increase in the coming years as developers take advantage of a federal tax credit set to expire in 2020.

Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, is a cosponsor of HB 118. His position on taxing solar is no different than his long-held support for taxing wind power, he said.

“I think we have to be fair. That’s my whole thesis,” he said. “To make it on par with other generations sources.”

Madden said he has some hesitation about the amount of credit companies would be able to receive in lieu of paying taxes, according to the bill’s current language.

Considering the cost of turbine blades and solar panels, it seems possible that companies could avoid paying the tax for years before Wyoming recouped that revenue stream, he said.

Crank, the bill’s sponsor, said he wasn’t concerned by that.

“I’m not really in favor of, here’s a tax just ‘cause we need the money,” he said. “If at the end of the day for those producers ... they don’t incur any tax and we get some more people working, I’m OK with that.”

Allowing producers access to a tax credit was the selling point for another co-sponsor, Rep. Timothy Hallinan, R-Gillette.

“It’s a good way to promote some economic diversification, which is the big talking point amongst everybody anymore,” he said.

HB 118 includes a grace period of one year before a new renewable facility has to pay the generation tax.

Taxing wind development has long been controversial in the state. Companies warn it dampens the burgeoning industry, and proponents argue the state should get a financial benefit equal to the impact of large wind farms.

An attempt to increase the tax to $5 per megawatt hour failed last year. Developers of the Chokecherry Sierra Madre wind project, a 1,000 turbine-proposal that is in the construction phase, said at the time that a tax hike would increase the company’s tax burden from $800 million to about $1.8 billion.

The company does not support HB 118, nor is it convinced of the benefit of the tax credit for manufacturing in-state.

“This bill is another attempt to increase a tax that has been voted down by the revenue committee four separate times,” said Bill Miller, president and CEO of Power Company of Wyoming, the Chokecherry developer, in an email. “The bill’s tax credit for renewable energy equipment manufactured and installed in the state would have no effect, because at this time there is no wind energy equipment manufactured in Wyoming.”

Lawmakers that support the tax increase have disputed the impact of the state’s tax, in part because producers receive a healthy federal credit for generating wind power.

Wyoming is the only state with a true tax on wind generation. One other state taxes wind production instead of taxing wind property.

There are a number of wind facilities now in development or construction phases in Wyoming. There are no utility-scale solar powered facilities under construction in the state. Some private solar farms are planned in the near term to sell electricity to Rocky Mountain Power, Wyoming’s largest utility.

On proposing a solar tax prior to having any large solar projects in the state, Madden said it was only a matter of time.

“We don’t have any yet,” he said. “But no doubt it’s going to come.”