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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

USA Trucking, pictured Tuesday in unincorporated Natrona County near Mills, is planning to expand, raising concerns from nearby property owners. The county's Planning and Zoning Commission voted Tuesday in favor of a request to rezone 20 acres of land required for the expansion. 

Governor advises residents to stay indoors as blizzard slams Wyoming

A major snowstorm pummeled Wyoming on Wednesday, causing closures across the state and prompting the governor to warn residents to stay indoors.

Between 7 and 13 inches of snow fell in Natrona County, according to preliminary totals posted at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday by the National Weather Service office in Riverton. An estimated 16 inches of snow fell on Casper Mountain.

A National Weather Service forecast reported the possibility of an additional 1-3 inches of snow on Wednesday night.

Preliminary snow totals weren’t available by press time for southeastern Wyoming, which appeared to be hit hardest by the storm. Blizzard conditions were expected to continue there through Thursday afternoon.

Along with the snow came high winds, which can resulting in blowing snow and drifts. Gusts as fast as 56 mph were recorded in Natrona County, according to the National Weather Service. Carbon County recorded one gust that reached 76 mph.

Photos: Winter storm pounds Casper with heavy snow

As of late Wednesday morning, the snowstorm had gone about as expected, NWS meteorologist Chris Jones said.

“We’re on track,” he said. “We think the heaviest snow will probably fall through Wednesday afternoon and then gradually start to slow a little bit during the evening but probably more during the overnight hours, after midnight. And we’ll see gradually improving conditions throughout the day tomorrow and by Friday, it’ll look like we just had a big, wet snowstorm.

“We’ll definitely see some melting. We’ll see a lot more sun on Friday and temperatures will be back up probably in the mid-30s or so.”

Similar conditions were reported around the state. Nearly the entire eastern portion of Wyomiong was under a blizzard warning on Wednesday. Between 10 and 20 inches of snow was forecast to fall on the southeastern portion of the state, according the National Weather Service office in Cheyenne.

Gov. Mark Gordon advised residents to stay home.

“This storm has the potential to be particularly dangerous. My advice is to stay put and shelter in place,” he said in a statement.

Gordon was monitoring the storm with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, Wyoming Office of Homeland Security and the Wyoming Highway Patrol, according to his office.

“We have closed roads and offices to protect the people of Wyoming and those travelling through the state,” he said. “We have been proactively closing roads ahead of the storm. Additionally, offices throughout the state especially those in the eastern and southern parts of the state are being closed as necessary.”

Widespread closures

All highways in and out of Casper — and across much of eastern Wyoming — were closed Wednesday due to the storm. Interstate 25 was shut down from Buffalo to Cheyenne, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation, and U.S. Highway 26 was closed west of the airport to Moneta. U.S. Highway 220 wasclosed west of Red Butte. Much of Interstate 80 was also closed.

With traffic snarled, the Wyoming Army Nation Guard opened its Douglas armory as a shelter for stranded motorists in the area. The Red Cross opened its own shelter in Cheyenne.

Lt. Jeremy Tremel said late Wednesday morning that police patrol officers and detectives remained on duty, but he asked people not to make any unnecessary travel. In an earlier press release, the city said police would only be responding to injury, multi-vehicle and hit-and-run crashes.

The city of Casper closed all non-essential services because of the snow.

The Natrona County offices, Natrona County courts and the town of Mills also announced closures Wednesday. State offices in Cheyenne were also closed, according to WYDOT.

The city of Cheyenne, meanwhile, announced its non-essential services would remain closed a second day due to the storm.

Natrona County School District announced early Wednesday its first snow day in years, and Casper College closed as well. Laramie County School District No. 1, Albany County School District No. 1 and Platte County School District No. 1 also shuttered for the day.

The University of Wyoming announced Wednesday afternoon that all classes were canceled as of 1 p.m., and non-essential staff were dismissed at the same time. Some campus building were set to remain open until 5 p.m., while all other university events were canceled at 5 p.m. The university expected to operate on a normal schedule Thursday.

A power outage affecting more than 700 Rocky Mountain Power customers was reported in the Glenrock area on Wednesday morning. Another power outage was reported in the Glendo area.

Traffic light but steady

The Casper Fire-EMS Department said via Twitter that the agency had responded to 16 calls for service between 7 a.m. and noon Wednesday. When the agency responded to a report of a vehicle sliding into a gas meter on K Street, Black Hills Energy was also called to the scene. The fire department said no leak was found.

Fire-EMS spokesman Dane Andersen said by phone late Wednesday afternoon that the agency had responded to no more calls for service than they do on a typical weekday. He cautioned that the number of calls could increase during the 5 p.m. rush hour but said he thought people had largely stayed home on the advice of authorities.

Traffic, consisting mostly of pickups and SUVs, was light but steady on largely cleared main streets around noon on Wednesday in Casper. Snow depths on side streets varied and traffic was uniformly sparse.

Late in the morning, most people seen on sidewalks were clearing snow with shovels and snowblowers. Around midday, families walked dogs and played in the snow that had accumulated in central Casper’s residential neighborhoods. Groups converged on a hill in Washington Park with sleds.

Brielle Boulanger celebrated her 8th birthday, which coincided with the school cancellation, with her brother Jonah, 11, and friend Jenee Cantrell, 10. The three children launched sleds off an improvised ramp halfway down a large hill on the west side of the park.

The airport remained open, but its 8:50 a.m., 11:25 a.m. and 3:20 a.m. flights to Denver were canceled. The 6 a.m. flight to Denver departed, but was diverted back to Casper. The 6:02 a.m. flight to Salt Lake City was delayed but departed.

In Cheyenne, police responded to more than 20 stranded vehicles and seven crashes. Two patrol cars were hit while officers responded to abandoned vehicles, police there said in a statement. Road conditions remained hazardous on Wednesday evening.

US, Canada ground Boeing 737 Max 8s after Ethiopia crash

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order Wednesday grounding all Boeing 737 Max aircraft in the wake of a crash of an Ethiopian airliner that killed 157 people, a reversal for the U.S. after federal aviation regulators had maintained it had no data to show the jets are unsafe.

The decision came hours after Canada joined about 40 other countries in barring the Max 8 from its airspace, saying satellite tracking data showed possible but unproven similarities between the Ethiopian Airlines crash and a previous crash involving the model five months ago. The U.S., one of the last holdouts, also grounded a larger version of the plane, the Max 9.

Daniel Elwell, acting head of the FAA, said enhanced satellite images and new evidence gathered on the ground led his agency to order the jets out of the air.

The data, he said, linked the behavior and flight path of the Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 to data from the crash of a Lion Air jet that plunged into the Java Sea and killed 187 people in October.

“Evidence we found on the ground made it even more likely that the flight path was very close to Lion Air’s,” Elwell told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.

Satellite data right after the crash wasn’t refined enough to give the FAA what it needed to make the decision to ground planes, Elwell said. But on Wednesday, global air traffic surveillance company Aireon and Boeing were able to enhance the initial data to make it more precise “to create a description of the flight that made it similar enough to Lion Air,” Elwell said.

The Ethiopian plane’s flight data and voice recorders will be sent to France for analysis, Elwell said. Some aviation experts have warned that finding answers in the crash could take months.

Officials at Lion Air in Indonesia have said sensors on their plane produced erroneous information on its last four flights, triggering an automatic nose-down command that the pilots were unable to overcome.

President Donald Trump, who announced the grounding, was briefed Wednesday on new developments in the investigation by Elwell and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and they determined the planes should be grounded, the White House said. Trump spoke afterward with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg and Boeing signed on.

“At the end of the day, it is a decision that has the full support of the secretary, the president and the FAA as an agency,” Elwell said.

Airlines, mainly Southwest, American and United, should be able to swap out planes pretty quickly, and passengers shouldn’t be terribly inconvenienced, said Paul Hudson, president of, which represents passengers. The Max, he said, makes up only a small percentage of the U.S. passenger jet fleet, he said.

“I think any disruptions will be very minor,” he said. “The first quarter of the year is the slow quarter, generally for air travel,”adding that the airlines have planes on the ground that aren’t being used on trans-Atlantic flights that could be diverted to domestic routes.

Boeing issued a statement saying it supported the FAA’s decision even though it “continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX.” The company also said it had itself recommended the suspension of the Max fleet after consultations with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution,” Boeing said.

The groundings will have a far-reaching financial impact on Boeing, at least in the short term, said John Cox, a veteran pilot and CEO of Safety Operating Systems.

In addition to those that have already been grounded, there are more than 4,600 Boeing 737 Max 8 planes on backlog that are not yet delivered to airlines.

“There are delivery dates that aren’t being met, there’s usage of the aircraft that’s not being met, and all the supply chain things that Boeing so carefully crafted,” Cox said. “If they can’t deliver the airplanes, where do they put the extra engines and the extra fuselage and the extra electrical components”

Even so, Cox thinks Boeing will recover, because the planes typically fly for 30 to 40 years, and any needed fix will be made quickly, he said.

Boeing’s shares have plummeted almost 11 percent since Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash. On Wednesday, the stock sank to $363.36 after the FAA announcement but then recovered to close at $377.14, up 0.5 percent for the day. It rose slightly in after-hours trading to $378.

In making the decision to ground the Max 8s in Canada, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said a comparison of vertical fluctuations found a “similar profile” between the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the Lion Air crash.

Canada lost 18 of its citizens in Sunday’s crash, the second highest number after Kenya. A Canadian family of six were among the dead.

Lebanon and Kosovo also barred the Boeing 737 Max 8 from their airspace Wednesday, and Norwegian Air Shuttles said it would seek compensation from Boeing after grounding its fleet. Egypt banned the operation of the aircraft. Thailand ordered budget airline Thai Lion Air to suspend flying the planes for risk assessments. Lion Air confirmed reports it has put on hold the scheduled delivery of four of the jets.

Enrollment projections are up for Natrona County schools, though elementary levels continue to lag

Overall enrollment is projected to continue to tick upward next year, Natrona County School District officials said last week, though the problem of elementary students leaving the district persists.

The district is predicting an overall boost of 46 students for the 2019-20 school year, bringing Natrona County’s total enrollment up to 13,137. The entirety of that increase would come from middle and high school gains, while continued elementary decreases dragged down what would’ve been a more promising gain. Still, if those projections hold, it would be the second straight year of growth after enrollment plummeted — here and across the state — in the wake of the economic bust earlier this decade.

Photos: The last day at four Natrona County schools that will be shuttered by budget cuts

In December, the state Department of Education released positive enrollment figures statewide that showed, for the first time in three years, that there were more students in Wyoming schools this year than the year before.

The enrollment projections here are a good sign for the district’s funding for next year. The state provides money to Wyoming districts based on a calculation of their enrollments. The projections the school board received Monday are not themselves indicative of a potential small boost in state funding; the calculation is more narrow than a straight headcount of students. But it’s still a positive sign that Natrona County is trending in the right direction.

The bad news is the continuous drop in elementary enrollment, which has plagued the district for several years. While high schools are projected to gain 103 students next year and middle schools should experience a 70-student increase, elementary enrollment is expected to fall by 127 kids. Hundreds of young students have left Casper and Natrona County over the past five years, and it’s not clear why.

Mike Jennings, the district’s executive director of human resources, presented the numbers to a group of school board members Monday. When asked about the falling elementary enrollment, Jennings said didn’t want to speculate about the cause, a stance the district has taken repeatedly over the years.

Complete coverage of the last day at four closing Casper schools

But he and Superintendent Steve Hopkins still provided some background. They said, for instance, that the number of students who are being home-schooled has not jumped upward recently. This year’s kindergarten class, based on the birth rate from five years ago, should be much higher than it is, they said (though kindergarten is not required in Wyoming).

Hopkins said the numbers suggest that there’s been some sort of mass move away from Natrona County during the past four or five years, which matches roughly with the spiraling and bottoming out of the economy.

He said the reason middle and high schools are still seeing growth is because before the bust, the elementary schools were bursting. That’s why the district was building new schools: to prepare for an expected continued rise in kids here.

Instead, young students have left Natrona County in droves, taking millions in school funding with them. So as the economy sputters and the Legislature cuts school funding to make up for lost revenue, districts are simultaneously losing students and even more money.

This one-two punch was a key factor in the school board’s decisions to close five schools here in 2017 and 2018. Not only was the money running low, but the schools were sitting empty — as many as 700 vacant seats in elementary schools across the district, as of last May.

Officials have been adamant that there is no need — or appetite — to shutter any more buildings here, as the cuts sent down from Cheyenne in recent years have been budgeted for and enrollment is trending upward.

Deep low pressure system makes for wet, abnormally windy snowstorm

Wednesday’s snowstorm was bad news for most people hoping to get around Casper, as about a foot of accumulation hindered transportation in and around the city and shut down businesses and schools.

On the bright side, Chris Jones said, at least it’s still mid-March.

“It’s a good, wet, spring snowstorm,” said Jones, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Riverton. “The impacts while it’s going on are substantial, but the good news is because it’s not the middle of January, traffic and travel will start to improve certainly even (Thursday) probably across the central part of the state and by Friday for sure.”

Photos: Winter storm pounds Casper with heavy snow

The storm was brought on by a low pressure system that whipped around moisture and dropped a blizzard on central and eastern Wyoming.

“The low pressure rotates counterclockwise, so it’s wrapping that gulf moisture up and around and producing a lot of heavy, wet snow,” Jones said. “At the same time, it’s a fairly deep low-pressure system, so the winds are also really strong out of the north behind this low pressure area. So we’re seeing the combination of the wind and snow, and it’s causing a lot of travel problems, needless to say.”

Earlier this week, DayWeather meteorologist Mark Heuer predicted that Casper could be in for “a once-in-a-decade-or-two storm.” Wednesday, Jones compared the storm to one over a decade ago: On March 28-30, 2007, about 12 1/2 inches of snow fell on Casper over the course of a day and a half.

However, Jones said late Wednesday morning, it didn’t look like this storm would be reaching “biggest snowstorms of all time” levels.

“But, nonetheless, is it unheard of? I think what’s making this one a little bit more unique is the wind that’s coming with it,” he said. “... We usually see wind with (spring storms), but to start seeing 40 or maybe even 60 mile an hour winds in some parts of Wyoming ... might end up setting it apart from our typical big spring snowstorm.”

However, it appeared like most gusts above 40 mph would be limited to the southeast part of the state, Jones said.

“Some of the speeds we’ve seen (in central Wyoming), while not pleasant and certainly making travel very difficult, may be not as as strong as what we had thought, at least to this point,” Jones said.

One interesting component to spring snowstorms is that they can bring drastically different precipitation levels to nearby places. Riverton, for example, had barely seen snowflakes as of late morning Wednesday, Jones said, while parts of Casper were reportedly 10 inches deep.

“I think the hard thing about these spring storms, when they wrap up like this and they’re so deep, the back edge of where it’s snowing and not snowing can be fairly sharp,” Jones said. “So there are some areas where maybe we’re not seeing as much snow as what it looked like it could be, and then we’re seeing areas like Casper that are doing as expected or maybe a little bit better across the state. So it’s making these really fascinating systems.”

And of course, there’s the fact that with the official start of spring around the corner, a foot of snow on the ground shouldn’t last long.

“We’ll definitely see some melting,” Jones said. “We’ll see a lot more sun on Friday and temperatures will be back up probably in the mid-30s or so.”

It's unclear if Wyoming's governor will sign a bill to sue Washington over a coal port

The fate of a coal export bill that gives Wyoming lawmakers the option to hire private lawyers to sue Washington State remains uncertain ahead of the governor’s final bill signing on Friday in Cheyenne.

Gov. Mark Gordon’s staff announced Wednesday that seven bills would receive the governor’s signature at the end of the week. However, his decision on a handful of remaining measures, including the coal export terminal bill, will be announced at a press conference Friday morning.

“Governor Gordon wanted to spend more time reviewing those six bills, taking in all the comments we have received and weighing his options,” Rachel Girt, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an email Wednesday.

The governor could veto the bill outright, line-item veto the $250,000 financial appropriation, signal a public rebuff of lawmakers by allowing the bill to become law without his signature, or, of course, sign it.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said he hoped Gordon would let the bill through. Gray, who said he had discussed the bill multiple times with the governor, characterized the bill as an economic development issue.

“There is an enormous amount at stake with this bill,” he said in a statement via email.

Gray’s coal export bill first appeared in 2018. It took aim at Washington State — which has blocked a coal export terminal by denying a necessary state water permit. Gray said at the time that Wyoming needed to step into the fight and that the failure to do so necessitated action from the Legislature. He asked for a quarter of a million dollars and authority for the Legislature to use that cash in hiring a private litigator to sue the West Coast state.

The bill didn’t gain traction, was criticized for sidestepping the the attorney general’s office — Wyoming’s governor appointed attorney and general expert in deciding when the state enters into lawsuits — and died before making it to committee.

Soon after the 2018 session, Wyoming did join an existing lawsuit against Washington by filing as a friend of the court — a party with a position that has bearing on a case but is not an actual party to the case. Gray, the original bill’s sponsor, noted at the time that the action was a good first step, but likely not enough.

“The state filing a lawsuit in federal court will ultimately give us the best chance of a good result,” he said in a May 10 email. “We need to continue following this. Just one coal export terminal would mean thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in our economy.”

Last year, the Legislative Services Office estimated the potential revenue gain from the proposed Millennium Bulk coal export terminal. If the terminal, capable of exporting 44 million tons of coal, were to export 26 million tons of Wyoming coal, for example, the total reward to the state would be more than $50 million per year.

This year, Gray launched his bill again. It didn’t have an easy time, but did make it through relatively unscathed.

Authority to approach a lawsuit with Washington is handled in two ways in the bill. Up until August, a majority of both chambers of the Legislature while in session, or a majority of the Management Council during the interim period, with input from the governor’s office, can authorize a suit through a private attorney. After August, the Management Council can vote to sue through a private attorney with or without coordination with the governor. The bill also sets up an account to pay for the lawsuit, with $250,000 appropriated from the general fund.

Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, did not vote in favor of the bill. She said in a recent interview with the Star Tribune that in her experience, having worked in the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, Wyoming approaches these cases strategically.

They appeared to have done so with the coal export litigation as well, she said.

“I didn’t understand the need for the Legislature to take a look at it when Wyoming already appears to be involved in that case,” she said.

Ellis approved of the bill’s intention — fighting on behalf of Wyoming’s coal industry — but not the legal strategy, she said, which could have unintended consequence of muddying the current litigation against Washington that Wyoming is already a part of.