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Opposing federal vaccine mandate, coal plant workers stage protests

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Dry Fork Station protest

Coal plant workers protest the federal vaccine mandate outside the Dry Fork Station on Tuesday near Gillette. They held the protest concurrently with the state government's special session challenging the vaccine mandate.

A group of employees at a northern Wyoming coal plant are speaking out against the vaccine mandate.

Roughly 20 workers from Gillette’s Dry Fork Station participated in a protest outside the power plant on Tuesday, an organizer told the Star-Tribune. Already feeling ostracized by the Biden administration’s push to phase out coal, some power plant staff don’t trust President Joe Biden and are wary of his efforts to vaccinate most of the American workforce.

“It’s not that we want to protest and cause problems, we just feel like we’ve been backed into a corner by the current administration,” said the worker, who was granted anonymity to avoid the possibility of retaliation. “It’s not about so much the vaccine as it is the mandate.”

The Dry Fork protest was held on the first day of a special legislative session convened in opposition to the federal vaccine mandate.

State lawmakers began calling for the special session in September, after Biden signed an executive order requiring COVID-19 vaccination — or weekly testing — for employees at companies with at least 100 employees.

Less than 40% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. The state is considered the most vaccine hesitant in the nation.

“We were talking at work about the legislators meeting this week, and just felt that we should put something together really quick to let the legislators know that we need their help, the state’s help, to protect us from the federal government,” the worker said. “So we decided to do a little protest and try to get it out there, to the legislators, that we want the state’s protection.”

The Dry Fork Station is operated by Basin Electric Power Cooperative. The electricity distributor has been offering vaccine clinics since vaccines became available, and is encouraging employees to bring questions and comments about the vaccine to the company, said Tracie Bettenhausen, a media representative for Basin Electric.

There is currently no vaccine mandate in place at the Dry Fork Station. It’s not yet clear whether, or when, a mandate may be federally instituted, Bettenhausen said.

“We’ve been consulting with our own legal counsel and other utilities and union leadership to determine what exactly we will need to do to comply with the potential requirements and timeline of the executive order,” she said. “So, you know, questions we get, we’re able to answer as we understand better how the executive order would apply to our employees.”

The protesters aren’t waiting on the details. Concern is growing among staff at other Wyoming coal plants, potentially giving rise to many more demonstrations, the worker said.

“It caught on, and now more and more people are starting to stand up,” they said. “Hopefully it keeps going until we’re heard.”

The next protest will be held at Laramie River Station, a much larger Basin Electric coal plant located near Wheatland, on Nov. 5.

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