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Matt Naber, The Powell Tribune 

The Western Sugar Co-op is seen in Lovell. The co-op has backed out on plans to construct a greenhouse adjacent to the facility, saying it is unable to participate in the project at this time.

New York Stock Exchange warns Wyoming coal producer it's at risk of being delisted

The New York Stock Exchange has warned one of Wyoming’s largest coal producers that it could be delisted, following consistent weak performance of the company’s stock.

Gillette-based Cloud Peak Energy’s common stock has been trading below $1 per share at the close of the market for 30 days in a row, prompting a notification last Wednesday that the company had six months to remedy its low stock price or it would be delisted from the NYSE.

Cloud Peak operates the Antelope and Cordero Rojo mines in Wyoming and the Spring Creek mine in Montana. The company employed about 850 miners in Wyoming as of September. It recently announced that it was considering selling itself — among other options — in the face of an untenable coal market. Cloud Peak was trading at 35 cents late Thursday.

Cloud Peak was the only large Wyoming player that did not file for bankruptcy during the coal downturn, when three large coal firms operating in the state sought Chapter 11 protection.

Cloud Peak was subject to the same market contraction as all coal producers in the country in recent years, but while firms like Peabody Energy and Arch Coal invested in metallurgical coal, believing that Chinese demand would be insatiable, Cloud Peak was not able to do so. When the bust hit — and metallurgical coal prices plummeted — the metallurgical coal chasers were left with heavy debt.

This meant that Cloud Peak did not face layoffs and uncertainty in 2015 and 2016 like its competitors. But the company also did not lighten its liabilities through the bankruptcy process. The post-bankruptcy players in Wyoming have fared better than Cloud Peak since the downturn, in part, experts say, because companies like Arch Coal and Peabody are now nimbler in the difficult coal environment due to their slimmer balance sheet.

The Altman Z-score, a rubric used to gauge a company’s risk of bankruptcy, placed Cloud Peak in the distress zone as of Thursday, indicating a possibility of bankruptcy within two years.

Cloud Peak executives have been frank about the challenge of the market during investor calls in recent years. The company has made a number of decisions that are concerning for coal watchers, recently cutting health benefits for retirees, which slashes its costs and allows for more revenue to flow to shareholders despite the challenging market conditions. The company also announced its plan to close its Gillette office and move employees to a mine site in Wyoming.

In an email to employees at the time, CEO Colin Marshall said that he understood changes created uncertainty for workers, but that they were necessary steps for Cloud Peak to grapple with the new normal in the thermal coal sector.

The practice of burning coal for electricity in the U.S. has faltered dramatically over the last decade. Once accounting for half of the power production in the U.S., coal now represents approximately 30 percent of the electricity mix. Cheap natural gas — following technological advances in the oil and gas industry — and increasingly affordable renewable options have shifted new power generation away from coal.

Regulations, like an Obama-era standard to reduce mercury and air toxics from burning coal, led to a number of older and smaller plant closures in recent years, while the changing demand on the electricity grid and a growing customer preference for non-coal power has pressured utilities to choose other forms of generation. That trend has led to premature closures of a number of large coal plants in the U.S.

With each coal plant closure, coal producers have one fewer customer to which they can market their coal. Wyoming’s largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power, is currently considering how to deal with the fact that some of the units at its coal-fired power plants in Wyoming are more expensive than procuring other power sources.

Wyoming is the largest thermal coal producer in the country by far. Its two largest mines, North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder, produce nearly a quarter of the U.S thermal coal supply. The industry is also a significant driver of both local and state revenue. About 4,600 full-time miners are employed by the mines in the Powder River Basin, as are numerous workers in jobs that service the coal industry. The plunge in productivity from the Wyoming Powder River Basin coal sector — a cut of about one quarter of annual production from 2015 to 2017— has reduced state revenue significantly.

Cloud Peak did not response to a request for comment by press time.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

A person walks down an icy road on Thursday morning in Mills. Some residential streets remained slick after Wednesday's snowfall. 

Wyoming K-12 enrollment stops skid, tops 93,000 students

There are 53 more students attending K-12 schools in Wyoming than there were last year, the state Department of Education announced last week, the first positive growth since the economic bust three years ago.

In all, there are 93,029 students enrolled across Wyoming’s 48 school districts, compared to 92,976 last year, as measured by a key enrollment calculation that determines school funding. It’s a positive sign for a public education system that’s been besieged by generally dropping enrollment and budget cuts for more than two years.

Funding for Wyoming school districts is driven by students in seats. The funding model allocates a certain amount of money per student, and when a district’s population drops, it loses funding as a result.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, Superintendent Jillian Balow praised the state’s education system and tied its success to the continuing efforts to attract new businesses and industries to Wyoming, a state historically tied — for better and for worse — to the fortunes of the energy industry.

“As our state is focused on economic diversity, it’s encouraging to see a slight increase in school enrollment,” Balow said. “Wyoming has a quality education system, and it is a factor families certainly consider when moving to or staying in Wyoming.”

Natrona County School District, the second-largest district in the state, gained 64 students to 13,039, up from 12,975. The district knew its enrollment would be up; figures from a 10-day count in September showed a strong uptick of 184 students. But the Education Department’s figures match the enrollment calculation used to determine funding, which is known as average daily membership and is typically lower than the number of students who show up for school in September.

In September, the district’s executive director for human resources, Mike Jennings, told the Star-Tribune that he was optimistic about how its average daily membership, or ADM, figures would end up. But district officials had previously been preparing for the worst: Budget projections from July showed the district was bracing for a falling ADM in the coming years.

In June, Superintendent Steve Hopkins said he was hoping for flat enrollment in the 2018-19 academic year but was bracing for more decline. Jennings said in September that the district wasn’t sure why it had seen gains and was hesitant to predict any future growth based off of this year’s success.

The economic bust — and the families and students that left the state with the money and jobs — was not kind to Wyoming’s schools, and Natrona County’s fared no better. Because of the number of elementary students who the left district between 2014 and 2017, coupled with millions in state cuts, the school board here has voted to close five schools since November 2016.

Natrona County’s 64 student gain was the third-strongest gain in the state. Sheridan County No. 1, based in Ranchester, gained 88, and the state’s largest district, Laramie County No. 1, had 81 new students.

In all, 22 districts gained students, one — Laramie No. 2 — stayed the same, and 25 districts lost enrollment. The largest declines came in Sweetwater County, where No. 1 lost 101 students, and No. 2 lost 62.

While the overall net gain is a good sign, it’s too early to declare a new day for Wyoming’s education system. The state’s economy is gaining ground and enrollment is picking back up, but there still remains a deficit in funding. Since the bust, legislators have primarily leaned on cuts to fill in that fiscal hole. It’s unclear what the new Legislature will do, under the leadership of new Senate President Drew Perkins and re-elected House Speaker Steve Harshman, to deal with what remains of the shortfall.

Federal workers face grim prospect of lengthy shutdown

WASHINGTON — Three days, maybe four. That's how long Ethan James, 21, says he can realistically miss work before he's struggling.

So as the partial government shutdown stretched into its sixth day with no end in sight, James, a minimum-wage contractor sidelined from his job as an office worker at the Interior Department, was worried. "I live check to check right now," he said, and risks missing his rent or phone payment. Contractors, unlike most federal employees, may never get back pay for being idled. "I'm getting nervous," he said.

Federal workers and contractors forced to stay home or work without pay are experiencing mounting stress from the impasse affecting hundreds of thousands of them. For those without a financial cushion, even a few days of lost wages during the shutdown over President Donald Trump's border wall could have dire consequences.

As well, the disruption is starting to pinch citizens who count on a variety of public services, beyond those who've been finding gates closed at national parks. For example, the government won't issue new federal flood insurance policies or renew expiring ones.

Trump and congressional leaders appear no closer to a resolution over his demand for $5 billion for the border wall that could now push the shutdown into the new year. The House and Senate gaveled in for a perfunctory session Thursday, but quickly adjourned without action. No votes are expected until next week, and even that's not guaranteed. Lawmakers are mostly away for the holidays and will be given 24-hour notice to return, with Republican senators saying they won't vote until all parties, including Trump, agree to a deal.

The president spent part of the day tweeting about the shutdown, insisting "this isn't about the Wall," but about Democrats denying him "a win."

"Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?" he asked in one tweet, citing no evidence for that claim. That earned him a reprimand from Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who tweeted: "Federal employees don't go to work wearing red or blue jerseys. They're public servants."

Roughly federal 420,000 workers were deemed essential and are working unpaid, unable to take any sick days or vacation. An additional 380,000 are staying home without pay. While furloughed federal workers have been given back pay in previous shutdowns, it's not guaranteed. The Senate passed a bill last week to make sure workers will be paid. The House will probably follow suit.

The longer the shutdown lasts, the more government activities will grind to a halt. It's already caused a lapse in money for nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice.

Many national parks have closed while some have limited facilities. The National Flood Insurance Program announced it will no longer renew or issue policies during the shutdown.

The chief judge of Manhattan federal courts suspended work on civil cases involving U.S. government lawyers as a result of the shutdown. The order suspends action in several civil lawsuits in which Trump is a defendant.

Judge Colleen McMahon said in a written order that the suspension will remain in effect until the business day after the president signs a budget appropriation law restoring Justice Department funding.

A similar order to McMahon's has been issued in the Northern District of Ohio.

"I think it's obvious that until the president decides he can sign something — or something is presented to him — that we are where we are," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

House Democrats tried Thursday to offer a measure to re-open government, but they were blocked from action by Republicans, who still have majority control of the chamber until Democrats take over Jan. 3.

"Unfortunately, 800,000 federal workers are in a panic because they don't know whether they'll get paid," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who tried to offer the bill. "That may make the president feel good but the rest of us should be terribly bothered by that, and should work on overtime to end the shutdown now."

Government contractors like James, placed on unpaid leave, don't get compensated for lost hours.

James said the contracting company he works for gave its employees a choice: take unpaid leave or dip into paid time-off entitlements. But James doesn't have any paid time off because he started the job just four months ago. His only option is forgoing a paycheck.

"This is my full-time job, this is what I was putting my time into until I can save up to take a few classes," said James, who plans to study education and become a teacher. "I'm going to have to look for something else to sustain me."

As federal employees tell their stories on Twitter under the hashtag #Shutdownstories, Trump has claimed that federal workers are behind him, saying many have told him "stay out until you get the funding for the wall.'" He didn't say whom he had heard from, and he did not explain the incongruity of also believing that most are Democrats.

Steve Reaves, president of Federal Emergency Management Agency union, said he hasn't heard from any employees who say they support the shutdown.

Report: Trucking remains leading cause of workplace deaths in Wyoming

From a Wyoming man whose death from cancer last year was linked to his time fighting fires to a veteran coal miner crushed by a slab of coal to numerous truck drivers killed in crashes on Wyoming’s roads, 20 people died on the job in Wyoming in 2017, the third highest fatality rate in the country last year, according to a report released Thursday by the state epidemiologist. Transportation was the most common cause.

The report by the Wyoming Department of Workplace Services notes that the number of deaths per 100,000 workers in Wyoming was 7.7 compared to the national average of 3.5 last year. Over a five-year average, Wyoming’s fatality rate is three times that of the country.

Death and injury in the workplace are high in Wyoming in part because the state has a significant portion of its workforce in high-risk occupations, said Meredith Towle, state epidemiologist.

Mining, agriculture, oil and gas extraction and a transportation sector that overlaps with these other key industries are all considered risky professions.

Towle said that 2017 was not a particularly unusual year for workplace fatalities, but the year-by-year study that she’s compiled — going back five years — has revealed some of the ways Wyoming, a traditionally dangerous place for many workers, has improved and could do better.

Her research has also brought up some of the difficulties facing Wyoming safety, such as the complicated nature of a common cause of death — contact with machinery — and the independent nature of the trucking industry that crisscrosses Wyoming every day and is responsible for the largest number of workplace deaths most years.

Notable from 2017

It was an unusual year for Wyoming workplace fatalities in one sense. Though transportation and warehousing jobs remain responsible for the largest number of workplace fatalities, there were no deaths in Wyoming’s oil and gas production sector — a high-risk employer for Wyoming’s workforce — according to the report.

The state report differed in this count from a recent federal report that counted four deaths in the natural resources and mining sector. Towle said the discrepancy may be because she categorizes industries by what the worker was doing when killed, while the federal count appears to track fatalities according to the employer.

The safe year for oil and gas workers may have been related to the lower number of oil and gas jobs, Towle said.

“We can link the ebb and flow of employment in those industries with the ebb and flow of workplace deaths,” she said.

Last year, the improvements in crude oil pricing lifted Wyoming’s beleaguered economy and began a gradual rise in oil and gas jobs, personal income and oilfield activity. But employment remained well below historic highs.

The industry is also under more scrutiny than some others, Towle said, noting that many employers in the state do appear to have a more collaborative relationship with regulators than in the past.

“We have made a lot of progress in terms of safety with that industry,” she said.


It is usually men — who populate the more at-risk industries —- that die on the job in Wyoming. Men accounted for 92 percent of deaths on the job between 2012 and 2017.

Most deaths are Wyoming residents — about three-fourths of fatalities.

The largest number of workplace fatalities over the last five years was Natrona County with 23 deaths. There were 16 deaths each in Campbell, Laramie and Sweetwater counties in that time frame.

Most worker deaths in Wyoming occur in transportation, with 33 percent of fatalities tied to a car crash on roads and highways and an additional 13 percent from a vehicle hitting a pedestrian or crashing on a work site, such as an ATV rolling over. In 34 percent of cases, the Wyoming Highway Patrol was the lead investigative agency, according to the report.

Other significant types of injuries leading to death were the result of contact with equipment, which accounted for 29 deaths over the last five years and falls from heights, which accounted for 18 percent of Wyoming fatalities in the last five years of fatality records.


and remedies

The percentage of out-of-state workers dying on the job spikes when looking at one industry, transportation, making it difficult for Wyoming to work on safety measures in that sector, Towle said.

In the last five years, 69 percent of transportation and warehouse job deaths were out-of-state residents.

“That’s a unique challenge we face,” Towle said. “We have a lot of truck drivers coming across the state that just may not be prepared or equipped for some of the weather or the mountain passes.”

Towle said she did not like the implication that because these fatalities were crashes, they were random in nature or unpreventable. In 37 percent of the highway transportation deaths between 2012 and 2017, the victim wasn’t wearing a seat belt. In one case last year, the driver and passenger attempted to switch seats while driving and went off the road. In another case, heavy wind toppled a two-trailer semi. The victim “was not properly belted and was partially ejected.”

The trucking industry is decentralized, Towle said. Wyoming participated in a trucking survey that interviewed 270 drivers entering Wyoming through Cheyenne to gauge safety practices in the industry. Drivers said that employers largely did have a culture of safety, but that fatigue from long hours on the road and pressure to meet deadlines often challenged that culture.

Talking to those truckers made the safety challenges in such a disaggregated industry pretty clear for Towle.

“You have thousands of drivers on the road and they are all responsible for being very proactive and making these independent judgments,” Towle said, from which route to take to sometimes getting permits for certain roads. “Maybe they don’t have all the information they need.”

A bad reputation

Wyoming is frequently critiqued for having one of the highest fatality rates in the country. This is in part due to the nature of the jobs in the state, Towle said.

“We do have higher proportion of the workforce in high-risk jobs and industries. That data is there and that includes ag and mining and construction,” she said. “Of course, that’s a driver in the rate.”

But Towle’s research —- which details the circumstances of each death in more detail than federal counts — has allowed her to focus on some of the pinch points in worker safety in Wyoming. ATV deaths and on-site collisions with pedestrians are issues that can be helped through better training. Those events only showed up in the detailed work the state does. Worker deaths from interacting with equipment, a subject that concerns Towle, is harder to address. Equipment and machinery deaths span diverse circumstances and industries.

Other details revealed in the reports are just frustrating to Towle. Falls from heights can often be prevented, she said, with low-cost and effective safety gear. Seventeen people died from a fall between 2012 and 2017, and though Towle can’t account for safety protocol in all of those scenarios, she suspects that training and equipment may have prevented some of those deaths.

In terms of the attitude towards worker safety in Wyoming, Towle said she’s seen the gamut in her experience. The state has restructured its consultation programs and increased partnerships with industry to improve standards and take preventative measures.

“Culture is a hard thing to measure,” Towle said. “I feel like we’ve got some of the best employers in the state in terms of safety practices, culture and leadership. But we probably also have some of the worst, just from stories I’ve heard from workers along the way. That’s not unique to Wyoming.”