NEWS BRIEFS for Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019

Woman injured in well explosion

EVANSTON (WNE) — Uinta County emergency crews responded to an explosion near Henry Fork Road, between County Road 283 and Lonetree, on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 23, at a building covering a well head at an oil field location. 

One person was working in the building at the time of the explosion. 

Dexter Mohler, Bridger Valley Fire Chief, said that person, a female private contractor, was able to phone a coworker for help. The coworker was able to get to her and begin transporting her to rendezvous with emergency crews. 

A redacted incident report from the Uinta County Sheriff’s Office said the call came in shortly before 11 a.m. Saturday morning, and an ambulance met the burned woman in the Polaris dealership parking lot. The incident report states the woman said she “didn’t remember anything but being on fire.” 

She was then transported to Evanston Regional Hospital with serious burn injuries before being transferred to the University of Utah Burn Unit. 

When the fire department arrived at the explosion site, they helped to safely shut down the rest of the well. The incident report indicates the coworker was at another well about four miles away when the victim called for help. When the coworker arrived, it was obvious the woman had rolled in the dirt in an effort to extinguish the flames. 

Mohler said the source of the ignition of the natural gas explosion is unknown and is still under investigation at this time, though the incident report states the cause may have been static electricity. 


Senate approves funding for new dorms

LARAMIE (WNE) — The Senate voted 22-7 Monday to pass House Bill 293, the legislation aimed at spurring more than $300 million of new dormitories on the University of Wyoming campus.

Before the bill heads to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk, the House will still need to vote on many of the changes made by the Senate.

One of the most significant changes came Monday, when the Senate voted to eliminate the Legislature’s role in a task force that will oversee the overhaul of UW’s existing dorms.

The Legislature convened a task force in 2018 to plan a financing scheme for the construction.

Some legislators in the Senate have now questioned the usefulness of that task force, including one lawmaker who sat on it: Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne.

Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, has said the task force only “got in the way” of the project and delayed a Level II feasibility study from being completed.

Kinskey’s amendment, which passed the Senate unanimously, would remove four legislators from task force and require the University of Wyoming to organize the committee.

“The task force is going to continue, but the Legislature’s going to get off the train,” Kinskey said.

Other amendments that have been passed by the Senate include the addition of Laramie City Manager Janine Jordan as a member of the task force, the removal of $3.5 million in infrastructure grants to the city of Laramie, and a reduction of a loan from the Legislature to UW.

That loan was originally $88 million in the initial bill and the Senate whittled it down to $10 million.


Methane forces evacuation of soda ash mine

ROCK SPRINGS (WNE) — Ciner Wyoming LLC employees were evacuated Saturday after monitors detected elevated methane levels, according to a company press release.

"We evacuated all personnel from the mine and turned off the power due to the elevated levels of methane," it states. "Thankfully, all our employees are safe."

The soda ash mining company will work with the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration "until the methane has dissipated back to normal levels, and we can safely return our employees back into the mine," according to Ciner.

"Our surface operations are continuing to function normally utilizing ore from our existing stockpile," it states.

When asked about a timeline as to when workers can go back to work, how long the investigation may take and what impact the incident could have moving forward, Ciner Site Manager Craig Rood told the Rocket-Miner that the press release was all he had as of Monday afternoon.


House approves bill blocking county zoning rules for private schools

JACKSON (WNE) — The Jackson Hole Classical Academy cleared a major hurdle to building a new school in South Park after lawmakers in Cheyenne approved legislation stripping county zoning authority over private schools.

Senate File 49 passed the House in a 33-26 vote Monday, which means now all that’s needed is Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature. The bill gives private schools across Wyoming the same exemptions from county zoning granted to public schools. It stems from the academy’s effort to build a new 116,000-square-foot campus in Teton County.

Instead of following county planning processes as they do now, private schools would instead be required to conform “substantially” to Wyoming’s School Facilities Commission guidelines, from restrictions on site size to design standards for walls and roofs.

It would be effective immediately, enabling the academy to get started right away on its plans, without seeking approval from the Teton County Board of County Commissioners.

Representatives of the Christian school, run by Steve and Polly Friess, said they sought legislative relief because Teton County’s planning process has proven too onerous. The search for a new school site has taken more than a year and commissioners recently rejected a request to expand maximum building size countywide to allow for a gym and auditorium, school officials said. But county commissioners statewide see the bill as an attack on local control.

On the House floor, legislators in favor of the bill argued that private schools should be treated equally to public schools, and that Teton County’s zoning regulations are infringing on the school’s private property rights. Those opposed said the dispute over the Classical Academy is best settled locally in Teton County.


Group pursues funds to improve ‘drug ranch’

POWELL (WNE) — Picnic areas and better fishing are among the amenities that a group of local residents are hoping to add to the Beartooth Ranch in Clark. 

For months, a committee created by Park County commissioners has been brainstorming ways to improve the more than 650- acre piece of state-owned property. 

The Beartooth Ranch Advisory Committee recently applied for a $14,000 grant from Trout Unlimited to improve the habitat and fishery on a portion of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River that flows through the property. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management donated picnic tables and the committee is seeking funding from Wyoming Outdoorsmen to pour some concrete for picnic areas, said Commissioner Joe Tilden, the county’s liaison to the group. 

“The committee’s moving right along,” Tilden said last week. “They’re doing what they said they’re going to do.” 

There has been conflict over the use of the ranch, which the federal government seized from a drug smuggler in the 1990s. The Department of Justice later agreed to turn the property over to the State of Wyoming, but placed severe restrictions on how the land can be used, generally saying it should be reserved for public recreation. 

Last year, commissioners considered making a push to loosen the restrictions — going so far as to talk about having the property sold back into private ownership. However, the board ultimately decided to let the Beartooth Ranch Advisory Committee pursue ways to enhance the property for public use.

Hemp farming bill headed to governor’s desk

CASPER (WNE) — A bill sponsored by one of Casper’s representatives to create a regulated industrial hemp industry in Wyoming is headed to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk.

Spearheaded by Republican Rep. Bunky Loucks, House Bill 171breezed through the Wyoming Senate on Monday on its third reading with only two members of the body – Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, and Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton – voting “no” on the measure.

Backed by a bipartisan group of 23 lawmakers, HB171 creates a framework for the state’s growers to capitalize on a provision in the new farm bill that decriminalizes hemp, previously considered a controlled substance under federal law. If signed by the governor, the bill would allow farmers to apply for a state license to begin to grow hemp.

Upon receiving the license, farmers would then have to subject their crop to regular testing – including remaining below a certain THC threshold. 

Last week, Loucks was seen on the Senate side of Jonah Business Center lobbying members there to re-insert an appropriation for hemp testing back into the bill – one of the few contentious periods for the bill’s journey through both chambers. According to the amendment, the funding for the program would not have been appropriated unless another other state agency, including the University of Wyoming or any community college, or a private entity could have provide building maintenance, employee training, laboratory supplies and the equipment necessary to implement the act at a lower cost.

The Senate eventually put the funding — $120,000 for a full-time employee to handle the inspection of the plants – back into the bill, and backed away from their amendment.


Man fined nearly $12,000 in grizzly killing

CODY (WNE) — A Riverton man was recently fined nearly $12,000 for illegally killing a grizzly bear in 2017.

That man, Joel Blury, 57, was sentenced in Circuit Court Feb. 5 by judge Bruce Waters for illegally shooting and killing the endangered species. He also received a misdemeanor charge for shooting wildlife from a road.

Dan Smith, a regional supervisor with Wyoming Game and Fish, said Blury mistook the adult grizzly for a black bear, a game he was legally hunting the May day he made his critical mistake.

“He blew a predator call and sure enough, he saw the bear coming out of the woods and walking towards him,” Smith said.

From his ATV vehicle on Road 203 in the Shoshone National Forest, west of Meeteetse near the Wood River area, Blury shot the bear with his .30-06 rifle, killing it with a single shot.

Within his punishment, Blury is prohibited from hunting, trapping or fishing for the remainder of 2019.

For the shooting, Blury must pay Game and Fish $10,000 restitution for the bear’s life and $1,680 to the county for his physical act. With court fees and other associated costs his grand total reaches $11,735. He already has paid $200 toward his debt, the minimum payment he must make each month.


Petition targets ‘coyote whacking’ in Wyoming

PINEDALE (WNE) — Almost 77,000 people have signed online petitions at with another 308,000 at against the legality of “coyote whacking” in Wyoming. 

Those 385,000 signatures come from across the country and many countries around the world for the petitions, which are aimed at Wyoming legislators and the governor. 

“We wish this was a twisted joke,” the Care2 petition begins. “Unfortunately, there really are people who participate in a sport called ‘coyote whacking’ and they can continue to legally do so. Wyoming legislators had an opportunity to outlaw it but they didn’t even bother looking at the bill, let alone passing it.” 

House Bill 288, titled “Animal cruelty – snowmobiles,” was introduced by freshman Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, on Jan. 28 after he reportedly received a video and photos of people chasing coyotes, wearing them out and killing them. Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, cosponsored the bill.