Scott Palmer, manager of technical services at the Bridger Coal Company surface mine, chats with a colleague while standing next to a 2.2-mile-long conveyor belt that hauls coal from two nearby mines to the Jim Bridger Plant, visible in the background. Though workers continue mining and burning coal as they have for decades, Jim Bridger and the mines that support it are threatened by a changing electrical grid. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)
December 24, 2019 by
If the story of Wyoming in 2019 were a tapestry, transitions, economic uncertainties and the communities’ myriad responses to adversity would be the primary fibers from which it was woven.
Chief among these threads was the tumult in coal country, where bankruptcies sent hundreds of miners home, crippled local businesses and left cash-strapped governments to try to recoup millions in lost taxes.
News that coal-plant units will close ahead of schedule quashed hopes that the summer’s woes would be brief or isolated.
Oil, gas and other sectors rounded out the picture with their own signs of instability.
In response, Wyoming’s leaders, communities and private citizens cast about for solutions. Disparate interests pushed, pulled and repositioned to mold a future Wyoming. Champions and challengers of blockchain technology, private jails, private schools, nuclear waste storage, utility deregulation, oil-field effluent dumping and drilling in sage grouse habitat all wrestled in the wake of the new reality. WyoFile illuminated each debate.
As energy and the economy dominated headlines, WyoFile also teamed up with the Casper Star-Tribune to uncover a secret investigation into former University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols, unpacked Wyoming’s complicated suffrage history, tracked efforts to stem the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease and reported countless other stories of Wyoming’s people, places and policy.
This collection of stories represents WyoFile staff favorites from 2019. They are stories that were popular, yes, but also hard-hitting, revelatory and crucial to understanding the state of Wyoming in this unique moment in history.
In January, operators at PacifiCorp’s Naughton Plant near Kemmerer shut down Unit 3, a giant furnace and electrical generator that consumed 165 tons of coal an hour. It was a precursor to many stories that unfolded over the next 12 months.
In this opinion piece, Kerry Drake hashed out a heartfelt House debate he described as riveting. “It’s not a word I’ve ever used before in connection with the Wyoming Legislature,” he admitted, “and I’ve covered about 20 sessions over the past four decades.”
At the behest of GOP mega-donor and gubernatorial also-ran Foster Friess, a powerful state senator championed a bill to exempt a private school development from county oversight. Many saw the measure as the first shot in an ongoing attack on local control by lawmakers.
Beloved by industry, a bill to stifle protests against “critical infrastructure” died for the third time on Feb. 4, 2019, in the capitol when it missed the deadline for an initial House floor vote. Many saw the measure that would target organizing groups as overreaching.
Despite longstanding and widely lauded state policy prioritizing development outside of core habitat, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned oil and gas leases on 23,626 acres of greater sage grouse habitat in the Golden Triangle, home to the highest concentration of grouse in the world.
Millions of gallons of tainted water carrying thousands of tons of oilfield pollutants could flow into Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River each month under a proposed Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality permit. WyoFile brought the proposal to light and tracked the resulting public debate and regulatory developments.
Civic leaders get the headlines but every member of the community is simultaneously navigating his or her own path through the world. One, a recent Wyoming Indian High School graduate, was particularly tested by tragedy and soared where others might have sunk.
In July, coal company Blackjewel suddenly closed two Powder River Basin mines, sending home nearly 600 workers. WyoFile told the story of other victims too, like a family cleaning business wrecked by the coal giant’s unpaid bills. “Mr. Hoops, what took us 27 years to build as a ‘MOM & POP’ business, you have torn down in less than seven months,” Tana Golay wrote Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops.
The matter appeared on no published agenda or public list of topics, yet Wyoming legislative leadership chose via an unpublicized email vote to explore storing spent nuclear fuel rods in the state, a prospect one senator said could bring in $1 billion a year.
Though Wyoming miners, local businesses and state and county governments struggled with unpaid debts, not all those owed money by Blackjewel walked away empty handed. WyoFile examined how Riverstone Holdings LLC positioned itself to eat first.
To better understand the fate of the coal industry and how it will affect Wyoming, WyoFile reporters Andrew Graham and Angus M. Thuermer, Jr. visited the aging Jim Bridger coal complex, which is carved into scrubby sagelands in the southwest corner of the state. There, they ventured deep underground to witness the extraction of a coal seam; talked to miners and nearby residents about the industry’s role in the economy and their lives; interviewed political leaders about their constituents’ worries and learned how the complexities of changing market demands inform decision making in distant corporate offices.
When the University of Wyoming unexpectedly declined to renew President Laurie Nichols’ contract, trustees refused to answer a fundamental question: Why? A joint investigation by WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune (also both party to an ongoing lawsuit seeking public records on the matter) revealed that an outside law firm secretly investigated the former chief executive before her sudden demotion.
Will Wyoming spark a tech economy by courting blockchain and cryptocurrency companies? Or are industry players taking advantage of a desperate and uninformed Legislature to treat the state as their sandbox — an easy place to pass laws and experiment, but not a place to stay and build? WyoFile took a deep dive into the economic darling that some love but few understand.
Like many who fled Wyoming as young adults, WyoFile Managing Editor Katie Klingsporn never thought she’d return. A year after moving back, she reflects on her complicated relationship with her home state in this personal essay.
The private prison giant touted the income and job-creation potential of a proposed Uinta County immigration jail. A charged public meeting in Evanston demonstrated both strong community support for the project and fervent opposition. “How do you sleep at night?” an angry resident asked CoreCivic executives. “I sleep very well,” one vice president replied.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.