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Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

A balcony space on the top floor of the Nicolaysen Art Museum, which until recently served as a glorified hallway leading to staff offices, has been converted to a new gallery for newcomers to the art world. 


Energy
Wyoming coal ash ponds rank among nation's worst in contaminated groundwater study

Ash produced after burning coal in power plants is polluting groundwater with toxins like arsenic, and disposal sites at two coal-fired plants in Wyoming ranked third and fourth worst for contamination nationwide, according to a report published Monday by environmental groups.

The polluted groundwater was not unknown to the utilities or the state prior to the report, both of which note that remediation is in progress. But the data published by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice is now publicly available due to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Coal Ash Rules of 2015.

Wyoming plants are not unique. By the groups’ accounting, 91 percent of the country’s coal-fired power plants — that have monitoring data available — have reported toxins like lithium and arsenic exceeding safe levels since the reporting requirements of the Coal Ash Rules came into effect last year.

***

Contamination was reported at four sites in Wyoming.

PacifiCorp’s Jim Bridger and Naughton power plants, outside of Rock Springs and Kemmerer, respectively, placed third and fourth worst in the report’s ranking. The utility’s Dave Johnston power plant near Glenrock was noted, and Basin Electric Power Coop’s Laramie River Station coal plant outside of Wheatland reported groundwater contaminants related to coal ash disposal.

At the Jim Bridger and Naughton plants, selenium and lithium were found in concentrations 100 times federally safe levels for drinking water. Arsenic in the groundwater at Naughton and Jim Bridger was five times safe concentration levels, the report notes.

At the Dave Johnston plant in central Wyoming, lead tested double safe levels, while farther east and south in Wheatland, lithium was found in levels three times the safe standards at the Laramie River Station site.

The utility PacifiCorp acknowledged that contaminants have tested at unsafe levels and that remediation — in compliance with state and federal standards — is in progress at Wyoming sites.

Dave Eskelsen, spokesman for the utility, said the contamination levels should be taken in context, acknowledging that the base water quality at its power plant sites is poor.

“From our point of view the levels are not particularly high when you compare them to existing background levels,” he said. “That’s water that can’t be used for any purpose other than some industrial uses.”

But Eskelsen also noted that the report holds these sites to an unfair water quality standard: the standard for drinking water.

Where the report notes that selenium contamination at Naughton was 100 times safe levels, the reality from the utility’s reporting was closer to a 12-fold exceedance, of groundwater standards, he said.

Eskelsen said that the utility’s three power plants cited in the report have at no time posed a hazard to drinking water sources for Wyomingites.

“I think the overarching message that we would like the public and customers to know is that we have been managing these facilities quite responsibly … for quite a number of years,” he said.

***

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is a permitting authority for coal ash disposal sites in the state, and regulators were aware that some of the sites named in the environmental report Monday had exceeded safe levels of some toxins, said Keith Guille, spokesman for the department.

Most recently, the utility had reported as much.

In December, PacifiCorp notified state regulators that it had detected a number of carcinogenic toxins in the groundwater under its coal ash ponds and landfills.

The contaminants in the groundwater included arsenic and cadmium near the Dave Johnston power plant, lead and selenium at a coal ash disposal pond at the Jim Bridger plant and both radium 226 and radium 228 in two ponds at the Naughton plant.

The state has required monitoring of these facilities for many years, Guille noted.

“We were aware of issues at several of these impoundments. In fact we were working with (the utility) to close and remediate them,” he said, noting closure plans for ponds at both Naughton and Bridger due to contamination.

As to why these issues continue in the state, Guille said that remediation is a complicated process and some of these sites are old.

“Trying to tackle those issues, it takes time. It takes time and work,” he said.

***

Coal ash has been a pinch point for environmental groups like the Sierra Club for some time. The group threatened to sue Basin Electric over the Laramie River power plant for its delay in publishing its crisis management plan for if its coal ash ponds fail.

For Connie Wilbert, the Wyoming chapter director of the Sierra Club, coal ash contamination is sometime invisible to the public, particularly in rural Wyoming where power plants often sit by smaller population centers. In the case of Laramie River, it was the threat to multiple nearby water systems and the Grayrocks Reservoir that had the Sierra Club concerned.

Generally speaking, the public isn’t aware of how toxic coal ash is, Wilbert said. But when it comes to burning coal for electricity, there is little about coal that doesn’t have a toxic imprint, she noted.

And as Wyoming considers transitions away from coal, the cleanup costs and responsibilities of these sites need to be understood and taken seriously, she said.

An example of how transition can be risky for Wyoming under poor policy approaches came up in the recent legislative session when a bill was passed encouraging utilities to sell coal-fired power plants rather than close them down.

Critics like the Sierra Club pointed out that sale to a smaller, possibly less financially secure, company than the utility increases the risk that cleanup will fall on the state and taxpayers.

It’s an issue that other states have faced. Coal ash cleanup at the troubled Colstrip power plant in Montana could cost between $400 million and $700 million, according to a legislative memo from state regulators, reported on in the Billings Gazette in January.

“These waste ponds are so toxic. The environmental cleanup is big, and it really has to be done properly,” Wilbert said. “I don’t think the general public has a good concept of that whole issue.”

***

For Eskelsen, of PacifiCorp, the utility is adept at handling its coal ash sites, some of which the utility has operated for decades in Wyoming.

In other states the utility has dealt with remediation — from hard rock mining to a site where previous owners had repurposed industrial drums leading to significant contamination, he said.

Its plans for closing up coal ash sites at Wyoming plants often include leaving the coal ash in place but constructing barriers to keep it from migrating. The ash legacy of power plants like Dave Johnston is not minor. A pond at the plant north of Glenrock held 17.5 million tons of ash as of 2016.

But the utility and the state both argue that they are up to the task of dealing with coal ash going forward. Remediation of the sites where coal ash has recently polluted the groundwater includes making sure that the pollution isn’t repeated, Eskelsen said.

Guille, of the Department of Environmental Quality, said cleanup of these sites, some of which were built under much older regulations, is a process.

“I’m very well-aware that we would all like it to be faster,” he said. “But groundwater is not a simple thing to address when you have contamination.”


Casper
breaking
Judge sets $500K bond for man accused of firing gun in Casper hospital; suspect says he was on LSD

A man arrested early Monday morning on suspicion of firing multiple gunshots inside a Casper hospital told police he was on drugs and went to the hospital to seek help, according to court documents filed in the case.

Police apprehended Mitchell Taylor, 20, of Casper, at 1:26 a.m. Monday after, they say, he fired a 9 mm handgun multiple times inside Wyoming Medical Center. Police arrested Taylor after tazing him inside a building on the hospital’s campus. Nobody was injured in the incident.

The documents, which police made available to local news outlets Tuesday morning, state Taylor told police he took LSD, a hallucinogenic drug, and became suicidal. He said he went to the hospital to seek help. When he got inside the hospital, he couldn’t find anyone to help him, he told a detective. He remembered shooting the gun, he told police, but did not indicate why.

Taylor appeared in court Tuesday afternoon, where Judge Steven Brown set his bond at $500,000 and ordered he have no contact with the medical center.

Deputies led Taylor into the courtroom separately from the rest of the inmates awaiting their initial appearances, three minutes before the hearing was scheduled to begin. Brown called Taylor’s case first, rather than in alphabetical order, as is more common.

Brown said prosecutors have charged Taylor, who was dressed in a jail uniform and wearing handcuffs, with two counts of aggravated assault, property damage and use of a firearm while committing a felony, as Chief Keith McPheeters indicated at a Monday press conference. Taylor told the judge he does not have a job.

“I was scheduled to go to school out of state but that’s probably not happening anymore,” he said.

When Assistant District Attorney Samuel Forshner requested the judge set Taylor’s bond at $1 million, the defendant grimaced, swaying from side to side in his seat.

“Sir, I just want to state for the record that I was overdosing on LSD that night,” Taylor said. He told the judge he did not remember any of events described in a police paperwork before the judge cut him off.

Forshner told the judge the prosecutor’s office did not have indication Taylor has any prior criminal record. The judge set Taylor’s bond, and as deputies led him from the courtroom, the 20-year-old looked back to the audience, audibly exhaling.

In an interview with police, a woman who works at the hospital said she saw a man standing near elevators holding a gun on the morning of the incident, the documents state. He asked her what she was looking at before turning away from her and firing the gun multiple times. She then ran to the hospital’s security desk.

A doctor told police he had been walking through a set of doors when he heard a loud bang, the documents state. He looked to his right and saw a man crouched and pointing a gun at him. The doctor told police he then ran away and, after he had left the area, heard several more bangs.

While Taylor was still wanted in Monday’s early morning hours, police spotted him crouching in a tunnel under Conwell Street, the documents state. The officer was initially unsure if Taylor was a person trying to hide from the shooting, the documents state. He told Taylor to show his hands and stay still, but Taylor began running away. The officer chased Taylor and eventually tazed him, the documents state.

Taylor struggled briefly before officers were able to take him into custody, the documents state.

Police estimated the damage to the hospital at about $5,000. They say Taylor damaged a door, wall and cabinets.


Washington
AP
As investigations swirl, Trump team ready to fight, distract

WASHINGTON — The White House has beefed up its legal team. Its political team is ready to distract and disparage. And President Donald Trump is venting against Democratic prying.

Trump’s plan for responding to the multiplying congressional probes into his campaign, White House and personal affairs is coming into focus as newly empowered Democrats intensify their efforts. Deploying a mix of legal legwork and political posturing, the administration is trying to minimize its exposure while casting the president as the victim of overzealous partisans.

“It’s a disgrace, it’s a disgrace for our country,” Trump said at the White House on Tuesday as he accused Democrats of “presidential harassment.”

Typically used to setting the national or global agenda, presidents are by definition on their back foot when they come under investigation. And the latest fusillade of requests for information has the Trump White House, already increasingly focused on the twin challenges of dealing with the probes and the 2020 election, in a reactive position.

Trump’s response points to his increasing frustration with Congress.

and his intention to seize on the investigations as evidence that he is under siege. in Washington.

While Trump is far from the first president to bristle at Capitol Hill oversight, his enthusiastic embrace of political victimhood is still novel — and stands to serve as a key part of his re-election argument. Trump has made railing against the so-called witch hunt against him a staple of his rallies and speeches, revving up crowds by mocking his investigators and news coverage of their proceedings.

That attitude was emphasized Tuesday by Trump’s son Eric, who was among the 81 people and organizations that the House Judiciary Committee has contacted seeking documents as part of a probe into possible obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power. Calling Congress “incompetent,” Eric Trump told Fox News Radio “we’re going to fight the hell out of it. And we’ll fight where we need and we’ll cooperate where we need, but the desperation shows.”

Aware that the shift to divided government would usher in an onslaught of investigations, the White House began making defensive moves late last year. Seeking to be ready for the Democratic-led House, more than a dozen lawyers were added to the White House Counsel’s Office and a seasoned attorney was added to the communications team to handle questions related to the probes.

After Democrats took the House last November, Trump declared that they had to choose between investigating him and earning White House cooperation on matters of bipartisan concern like health care and infrastructure. Trump assessed publicly Tuesday that Democrats had made their choice, saying, “So the campaign begins.”

His aides had already made that determination, with press secretary Sarah Sanders issuing an acerbic statement late Monday calling the Judiciary Committee probe a “disgraceful and abusive investigation.” Trump’s campaign spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany, accused Democrats of stopping “at nothing, including destroying the lives and reputations of many innocent Americans who only have sought to serve their country honorably, but who hold different political views than their own.”

White House officials described their plan for addressing the mounting requests as multi-layered. Lawyers in the counsel’s office plan to be cooperative, but are unlikely to provide Democrats with the vast array of documents they’re looking for. In particular, they intend to be deeply protective of executive power and privilege — a defense used by previous administrations against probing lawmakers with varying degrees of success.

Trump said President Barack Obama “didn’t give one letter” when his administration came under congressional investigation. But Obama spokesman Eric Shultz tweeted that the Obama White House produced hundreds of thousands of documents for various congressional inquiries.

Meanwhile, others in the White House and the president’s orbit are preparing to do what they can to bring the fight to Democrats, preparing dossiers about Obama’s invocation of executive privilege when House Republicans investigated his administration. And all acknowledge there is no chance that Trump will stop commenting and criticizing the investigations.

The officials declined to speak on the record in order to discuss the sensitive planning.

The administration approach was on display this week as White House counsel Pat Cipollone pushed back against a request from the House Oversight and Reform Committee for documents related to security clearances for White House officials. In a letter released by the committee chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Cipollone called the request “unprecedented and extraordinarily intrusive” and offered to provide a briefing and documents “describing the security clearance process.” White House officials said the Cummings inquiries were seen by aides as a thinly veiled attempt to gain potentially embarrassing information on the president’s son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Cummings shot back that the White House position defied “plain common-sense” and said he would consult with colleagues on his next move.


State-and-regional
Seven storylines to watch in Wyoming's 2019 interim session

Spending just about three months out of every two years in session, members of Wyoming’s citizen Legislature are considered part-time lawmakers.

The action, however, doesn’t stop at the final gavel.

As the list of bills shrank in the House and Senate Chambers’ final weeks, committee members from both chambers convened in meeting rooms around the temporary Capitol to discuss what’s next, contemplating not only what new topics to address in this year’s interim but what failures are worth revisiting in 2020.

On March 22, the Management Council — the rule-setting body for the state Legislature — will meet in Cheyenne, where it will consider a list of topics those committees wish to visit in the interim.

While the lists of specific priorities each committee will bring to the council are not made public until that meeting, interviews with more than a half-dozen lawmakers and several meetings revealed a number of themes that might be tackled by the legislature in the coming months.

After a banner year for criminal justice reform, what comes next?

Of all the state Legislature’s committees, arguably its most successful — and consequential — this session was its Joint Judiciary Committee, which managed to pass nine significant criminal justice and sentencing reforms through the House and Senate this session.

The Joint Judiciary Committee will now look to branch out on other areas of the justice system that have been neglected after years spent focusing on this year’s reforms, according to Rep. Dan Kirkbride, R-Chugwater. Among these is a study to examine why people violate their parole in the first place and why they end up back in jail or prison after already serving their time.

“As far as the criminal justice reinvestment bills, phase two for us is finding the connection between parole and substance abuse treatment,” he said. “There’s a fragile link there where not all offenders are getting the treatment they need, and I’m not sure if that’s a mix of our state’s finances or resources or what.”

Other possible reforms could include a “credit” system for inmates’ good behavior while incarcerated in county jails and studying the cost of keeping the state’s death penalty statutes on the books, which faced a failed repeal effort this year.

Notably missing from the list was marijuana sentencing reform, which died in Kirkbride’s committee this session.

For the Joint Revenue Committee, a sense of futility

Despite looming budget cuts and improving — but relatively lackluster — revenues from the energy industry, the Joint Revenue Committee saw most of its bills meant to raise money for the state fail this year. Even with clear frustration expressed at the committee’s final meeting of the 2019 session two weeks ago, committee members remained resolute that they would continue to perform their prescribed duties: namely, diversifying the state’s revenue streams.

Some potential storylines could be the return of the push for a corporate income tax — which failed after significant outside pressure — and a conversation around a state income tax, a personal interest of Democratic representative Cathy Connolly. However, a large theme for the committee this year could simply be educating the rest of the Legislature that the time may have finally come to do something about the state’s revenue picture.

“Whatever we decide to do, we have to be educating other members on it,” said Rep. JoAnn Dayton-Selman, D-Rock Springs.

Question marks remain over education

The Wyoming Legislature significantly tweaked the way it does education this year, passing a number of bills that not only tighten teacher accountability, but open the doors for non-traditional learners and technical education students to match the needs of the state’s evolving workforce.

This interim, said Joint Education Committee co-chairman Hank Coe, R-Cody, will largely be spent waiting to see how this year’s efforts pan out, leaving the committee to focus on issues like school security — which experienced setbacks this session — and implementing new programs for the state’s youngest students. These include the expansion of Medicaid-eligible special education programs and social services in the schools — which Wyoming is one of the few states not to have done — and building on a successful K-3 reading intervention bill that passed this session.

One area they won’t address will likely be the biggest issue to face the Legislature in 2020: the cost of education and the looming cuts hinted at by appropriations committee chairman Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Lander, who said education would likely be slashed after a session of failed revenue bills.

“I think there was a lot of disappointment from Sen. Bebout on the lodging tax failing, but the whole Senate turned that down,” said Coe. “I think he was disappointed in that aspect, and I was disappointed with our senators on that. That bothered me a lot.”

“We have to remember there’s an ongoing structural deficit in funding K-12,” he added. “That’s the one area in state government that is not funded adequately.”

What will become of UW’s ag funding?

The University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture was denied a significant amount of funding this session, despite the university as a whole receiving funding increases.

In a supplemental budget request submitted to the Legislature by then-Gov. Matt Mead last year, UW requested $5 million for the College of Agriculture in anticipation of hiring a new dean this year but didn’t get it. Mead’s budget also included $2.5 million for “excellence in agricultural education” but received just $500,000.

Joint Agriculture Committee chairman, Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said the topic of funding for the university’s ag school will be a major focus heading into the 2020 budget session and looking at the university’s funding streams to see to “what extent” agricultural programs are funded there.

“I have no perceived biases there as to how that might end up,” he said.

Boner did, however, acknowledge it would be a priority for his committee.

“The topic that has attracted the most interest is the University of Wyoming and their land-grant university mission,” he said. “It’s important they continue to focus on the meat and potatoes of their ag research. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s what they’re there for fundamentally.”

Will local control be an issue this year?

One of the biggest storylines this session was on the topic of local control in land use decisions, many of which revolved around unresolved issues central to Teton County.

In the final meeting of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee two weeks ago, there were hints given by some members that this year’s legislation could have merely been the beginning. Topics broached by the committee included looking at affordable housing incentives, which were inspired by a failed bill to ban workforce housing requirements in Teton County, and a potential review of land use planning, motivated by a successful bill to prevent zoning restrictions on private schools.

Committee chair Rep. Bill Landen, R-Casper, urged caution, however.

“I think we want to be a little bit careful,” he said in an interview last week. “A lot of those issues can be handled by individual legislators in their individual districts. But I think there are some guideposts we can consider with local control or local zoning issues — taking a quick look at the statutes and seeing where we want them to be. My only caution there is moving too quickly on all the things that were suggested to us. And we have to limit (the time we spend talking about it). Otherwise, we’ll spend too long on it.”

Preparing for 2020

Facing a contentious election in 2020 and coming off a bitterly fought campaign season in 2018, the Legislature passed its first campaign finance code revisions in a long time this session. Though Landen acknowledged the bill will likely not fix all the state’s dark money problems, he said it was a start and noted his committee would be working to introduce some other reforms to the state’s election code.

The most significant changes could be to the way the state does its party nominations, which would shift the state’s election system from an open primary to the Utah methodology of a caucus system — a conservative response to the failure of a massive effort to close the state’s primaries this year.

The committee might also look at a review of voter registration and day-of voting requirements, as well as looking into some of the issues that were seen in Fremont County when tribal members tried to vote early, to discuss tribal identification and reducing the ambiguity that can sometimes be seen at the polls.

Health care issue heating up

Numerous events could potentially converge this interim that could drastically change the state’s health care system. As numerous states have already expanded Medicaid, Wyoming will not be studying the issue after narrowly being voted down in the House, despite fear of a potential ballot initiative.

Meanwhile, numerous lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act could present a fundamental threat to the way the state runs its exchange population, said Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, leaving the state to pursue solutions in the interim.

“We’ve got to respond to whatever the feds do to us this time,” he said in an interview last week. “That’s been a topic one way or another ever since I’ve been down here. And it almost always produces something.”

Scott noted that several years ago, the Department of Insurance overloaded the silver plans available under the ACA in Wyoming, impacting the subsidies for gold and bronze plans offered under the ACA. If things change, individuals in Wyoming might find themselves with individual plans they can no longer afford, Scott said.

The rest of the interim for his Committee on Health, Labor and Social Services, however, will likely be spent with studies similar to a hospital cost study the legislature approved funding for this year, which will be used to evaluate where the issues are in the state’s medical pricing. The committee will also be looking at regulation and staffing problems in the state’s nursing facilities — a major concern as the state’s senior population continues to grow.

“You can’t work the solutions until you’ve qualitatively identified what the problems are,” he said.