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Campbell County braces for season's first big winter storm
Wednesday will be a turning point with low about 17 and snow

The first big winter storm of the season is scheduled to hit Campbell County Wednesday.

The National Weather Service in Rapid City, South Dakota, is forecasting rain and snow Wednesday, with the precipitation turning into all snow by 1 p.m. For the rest of the day, temperatures are projected to drop to 26 degrees, a significant drop from Tuesday’s high of 72 degrees, and about 1 inch of snow is expected.

Wednesday night, it’s supposed to get down to 17 degrees and it should be blustery, with a north wind of 18 to 25 mph, with gusts as high as 36 mph. New snow accumulation of 4 to 8 inches is possible.

Campbell County Emergency Management Coordinator David King said the county and city have spent the last few weeks getting ready for winter weather.

The county’s maintenance workers have put shovels and containers of salt in the lobby of the courthouse, and Road and Bridge is getting its plows ready to go. The city was training plow drivers last week on snow routes.

“We get snow during this time of year,” King said, adding that this is a little earlier than usual. But abnormal weather has been par for the course this year, from three snowstorms in May to summer hailstorms to a torrential downpour in August.

“Weather hasn’t been normal all year, so why would winter be any different?” he asked.

Around the state, forecasts are similarly dismal. Temperatures will dip down to 14 for Newcastle, 12 in Riverton, 10 in Casper and Cheyenne and Evanston, and 6 for Laramie.

University of Wyoming Extension horticulturists have advice for people who worry about the effect of the arctic cold front on their trees, shrubs and flowers.

  • Knock snow from still-leafed-out trees and bushes.

“People should worry especially if their deciduous trees have not yet dropped their leaves,” said Karen Panter, extension horticulture specialist, in a press release. “Heavy snow can break limbs and topple already-weak trees. Knock snow off as much as possible.”

Panter also advised wrapping trunks of newly planted trees up to 3 feet or more to defend against the cold.

  • Water lawns and other perennials before Thursday. Water is a great insulator and it changes temperature very slowly, she said.

“Dry soil isn’t and doesn’t and can actually heave and separate, damaging root systems,” Panter said. “The best way to help plants through the winter is to make sure the soil is moist. People seem to think watering will keep plants from going into dormancy, which isn’t true at all. Dormancy is a complicated combination of lower temperatures, lower levels of sunshine, shorter days, etc.”

Extension state Master Gardener coordinator Chris Hilgert echoed Panter’s advice.

“It is a good idea to make sure to water your landscape plants — trees, shrubs, lawns and perennials — going into winter,” Hilgert said. “Once the weather turns cold, we don’t know how long it will be before we get a chance to water them again. Fall watering is the best thing we can do to help them through our long winters.”

King said that with an October snowstorm, what he’s watching for is not the snowfall, but how long the snow sticks around.

“I’m really hoping Thursday we aren’t slipping and sliding around, but we’ll have to wait and see,” he said.

News Record Photo/Rhianna Gelhart 

News Record Photo/Rhianna Gelhart

Wyoming first lady Jenni Gordon, right, watches as a video loads and streams on a new Samsung tablet donated by Charter/Spectrum to the Boys & Girls Club of Campbell County on Monday. In all, Charter donated 14 tablets and six laptop computers to the club. Also looking on are the club’s executive director, Nathan Grotrian, left, and Charter/Spectrum Regional Vice President Todd Baxter.

Charter donates new tablets, laptops to Boys & Girls Club

On a normal weekday, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find the Boys & Girls Club of Campbell County teeming with activity and many heads looking down at laptop computers and tablet devices.

What would be a break from the usual would be a scene like Monday, where those scurrying around the club weren’t children, but Campbell County and the city of Gillette’s leading officials. And while some still had their eyes glued to tablets, it was with purpose.

“Oh, wow. I can’t believe how fast that loaded,” said Wyoming first lady Jenni Gordon.

She was connecting a new Samsung tablet through the club’s new super-fast wireless internet to an online video for her new Wyoming Hunger Initiative, which launched last week.

She was sharing the tablet with Todd Baxter, a Charter/Spectrum regional vice president who was in Gillette to announce the company’s new gigabit internet service along with making a donation to the local Boys & Girls Club. In all, the company donated 14 new Samsung tablets to the club, along with six new Hewlett-Packard laptop computers.

That the devices are an upgrade for the youth group’s computer room is an understatement, said club director Nathan Grotrian.

“Gillette now has top-level internet speeds the same as New York City, Dallas, Los Angeles,” Baxter said, adding that a gigabit connection is about 10 times faster than Charter’s average download speed of 100 megabits per second.

“It’s really a game-changer, because what these top-level speeds will do from a big picture perspective is help move products and services to a global market,” he said.

For residential uses, “these really fast speeds also are going to assist in entertainment and quality of life,” he said.

Along with the donation to the Boys & Girls Club, Baxter said Charter has a program that allows families with children who meet the requirements for reduced or free school lunches to have fast broadband connections at home for a very low price.

“Access to technology can be an affordability issue for some families,” he said, which can further stunt the development of children who can’t have that access for homework and other important uses.

Food for thought

Monday’s event at the Boys & Girls Club also was an opportunity for Charter/Spectrum to present Gordon with a $1,500 check for her new anti-hunger campaign.

Gordon said that as her husband, Mark Gordon, was campaigning around the state leading up to his election as governor, she saw that childhood hunger is an issue in communities across Wyoming. Growing up in a large family, she said she was always taught to respect food and not waste it.

“This is something I’m very passionate about,” she said. “You never wasted any food and you always shared when you have extra to give.”

That’s why Gordon said she was impressed in August when she volunteered at a Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies distribution in Gillette in the wake of the Blackjewel mine closures.

“It was very hot that day and there were people lined up two hours before they were even going to receive the food,” she said. “It was impressive with the number of volunteers who showed up. I think we gave out (food to) 390 households with (food for) 25,000 meals.”

She said her Wyoming Hunger Initiative won’t compete with other efforts like the Food Bank of the Rockies, but will look for ways to support those things already in place to help more people.

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FM Coal to take on more mine reclamation as part of deal
Blackjewel is target of federal investigation

A last-minute motion from Blackjewel LLC is asking the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to add a condition to the sale of the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Wyoming to Eagle Specialty Materials.

While it’s not expected to affect the sale of Blackjewel’s Western assets, the late Monday motion adds another condition to the sale for ESM’s parent company, FM Coal, to also assume about $100 million worth of reclamation obligations on already-defunct Blackjewel Eastern properties.

That’s because Lexon, a bonding and insuring company, holds those Eastern reclamation bonds and is being asked by ESM to provide bonding for about $230 million worth of reclamation obligations attached to the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines.

Lexon won’t take on all of that itself, so to free itself up for the Western bonding is requiring FM Coal to assume those permits in Appalachia.

It’s something FM Coal, Blackjewel and government agencies have been discussing for some time, said a person with knowledge of the negotiations who asked not to be identified.

While making those Eastern properties part of the deal for the Western assets wasn’t in the original plans, “It’s not a surprise,” the source said, adding that “it’s a collective desire of everyone to make sure the state isn’t left holding the bag. … The goal is to get all this stuff cleaned up and stop having this black eye on the industry.”

There are other terms involved, but those weren’t disclosed.

The bottom line, according to Blackjewel’s court motion and the source, is that the sale to Eagle Specialty Materials is still on track to close as early as Wednesday.

“Subject to the approval of this court, … an affiliate of ESM’s parent will acquire the Eastern permits and assume the associated reclamation obligations so that ESM can obtain the bonding needed to close the sale of the Western assets, which is now expected to take place on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019,” the motion says.

ESM was given final court approval to buy the mines last week in a deal that would see it receive $90 million from Contura Energy to assume the reclamation obligations. Eagle also will pay Blackjewel $16.2 million in cash; pay $22 million to Blackjewel’s senior debt holder, Riverstone Credit Parters; pay any unpaid bills and debts incurred during the bankruptcy up to about $4.3 million; make the employees whole by paying any unpaid wages and benefits owed.

Eagle also will repay 50% of the county production taxes Blackjewel owes.

Fraud probe

Monday’s late motion about the Lexon bonding comes less than 48 hours after a weekend court filing that confirms the federal government has been investigating Blackjewel LLC since before it filed for bankruptcy July 1.

The company has been subpoenaed in the government’s “investigating potential violations of the False Claims Act” by Blackjewel, according to court documents. Because the company continues to go through its bankruptcy process, the government is asking the court to extend a deadline to to allow the company to discharge all of its debts and dissolve through Dec. 4.

That Blackjewel is the subject of a federal investigation doesn’t surprise many in Gillette, said Campbell County Commissioner Mark Christensen. The company and its former CEO, Jeff Hoops, have been “acting in bad faith for quite some time,” he said.

When Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy, then abruptly locked out about 1,700 coal miners in Wyoming and Appalachia, it revealed a scheme of juggling money between its coal mines in a way that was bound to collapse, Christensen said.

“I am happy the feds are looking into it,” he said. “I still think Wyoming should look into this separately. We got screwed more than anyone. There was lots of money coming out of the mines here to pay for those back in Appalachia.”

Employees were given rubber paychecks, haven’t been paid for time worked and had their contributions to their own retirement and health savings accounts withheld. “It just scratches the surface of the malfeasance done here,” Christensen said.

That’s why the Campbell County Commission in August asked the county attorney if it could bring Hoops up on criminal charges. And while the government’s motion doesn’t mention Hoops specifically, he was leading the company during the time the alleged fraud happened.

“If you look at his track record, he’s never really run a mine successfully,” he said. “I think anything anybody can do to craw up his (rear end) is for our benefit.”

Hoops and other Blackjewel executives may not be let off the hook for how they tanked the company, which “should be a welcome bit of news for the employees,” he added. “That company wrecked all these peoples’ lives. … They just left a wake of complete (crap).”