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)

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.

Dave Eskelsen surveys the Unit 3 coal grinder that shut down Jan. 30. Plant manager Rodger Holt, behind him, looks down from the two-story-high machine that environmental regulations and market forces have sidelined. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Victim of the times, Kemmerer coal-fired generator shuts down

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.

Death penalty vote a proud moment for Wyoming House

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.”

Neighbor Mark Snell submitted this photograph of an elk herd in South Park to Teton County planners saying it shows “significant elk activity around the proposed building site,” of the Jackson Hole Classical Academy. (Teton County Planning Department)

Bebout carries Friess private-school bill to end local control

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. 

A controversial bill to create new penalties for interfering with critical infrastructure succumbed to a deadline in the Wyoming Legislature Monday night. The bill has returned after previous legislative deaths. (Elyse Guarino/WyoFile)

Obit: Critical infrastructure bill 2019 succumbs to deadline

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.

The Golden Triangle, as seen on Google Earth, covers thousands of acres between Farson, South Pass and Big Sandy. (Google Earth)

BLM leases 23K acres in sage grouse Golden Triangle

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.

An angler enjoys the Wind River in Wind River Canyon just upstream of the “Wedding of the Waters.” (Matthew Copeland/WyoFile)

Permit eyes tons of oilfield pollutants for Boysen, Wind River

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. 

Ra’el Trosper on the bank of the Little Wind River, which runs through property that’s been home to her family for generations. [Katie Klingsporn]

The quiet leadership of Ra’el Trosper

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.

Vern Golay, 63, poses for a photograph in his kitchen. The Gillette resident once owned a small mine cleaning business with his wife. But Blackjewel’s unpaid bills forced them to fire four workers and close up shop, Golay said. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Blackjewel’s unpaid bills wrecked local businesses, owners say

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. 

Massive containers hold spent nuclear fuel at a dry storage facility. This photo shows, at right, a dry cask recently loaded with spent fuel being lifted from a horizontal transporter to be placed vertically on a specially-designed storage pad. (Flickr Creative Commons/Sandia National Laboratories)

Lawmakers quietly explore storing spent nuclear fuel

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.

Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, at least the public portion, has played out at the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia. (Google street view)

Power Play: Big investment firm escapes Blackjewel unscathed 

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. 

The Jim Bridger Power Plant in southwest Wyoming. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Powering down: Examining coal’s shaky ground from Jim Bridger

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.

Laurie Nichols speaks at a forum at UW in 2015, during her application for the university presidency. Nichols got the job but was pushed out as president by the board of trustees this spring with no public explanation. Now, Nichols has joined UW in seeking to block the release of records related to the trustees’ decision. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Trustees quietly investigated Nichols before unexplained dismissal

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.

Coding and blockchain aficionados listen to speakers at the WyoHackathon in Laramie. The September event, which featured groups solving computer challenges for prizes, was sponsored by a number of blockchain companies, including two big cryptocurrency firms. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Blockchain: Can Wyo woo a digital revolution? Should it?

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.

Driving across Wyoming. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Wyoming homecoming: Embracing the familiar and the fraught

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.

Builders for the private prison company CoreCivic presented this rendering of an immigration jail proposed for outside Evanston at a public meeting on Dec. 2. (CoreCivic)

Evanston meets its would-be economic savior, CoreCivic

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.

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  1. Clearly Wyoming has a long way to go before it is capable of successful self-government. It managed to get where it is by relying on the booms and busts of natural resource extraction. Those days are quickly coming to an end, no matter how the governor (with complicity on the parts of the 19th Century legislature and local governments down to the town level) may chase after the whirlwinds and medicine shows created by wishful thinking.

    A comment made by a reader a few months (or weeks?) back said it all for me. The person who wrote the comment said that the state is currently operating at “…Peak Stupidity…” And, so it is.