Increasing fire weather places emphasis on defensible space
A derailment and a tornado add to Wyoming’s coal-by-rail worries
Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, the largest coal-producing region in North America, suffered two major coal supply disruptions in the span of three weeks.
A loaded coal train derailed four miles southeast of Lusk on Monday morning, overturning 21 rail cars and temporarily closing two “main lines.” No injuries were reported, and both rail lines were back in operation by late Tuesday, according to Union Pacific Railway.
On June 23, a tornado struck the North Antelope Rochelle mine — the largest coal mine in the nation — causing severe structural damage, injuring eight workers and hobbling the mine’s ability to load coal trains for several days.
Union Pacific hasn’t yet determined the cause of Monday’s derailment, and the tornado strike at the mine was a random severe weather event, but both incidents revealed the vulnerability of a coal-by-rail infrastructure that the nation still relies on for about 15% of its electrical power generation capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Industry analysts doubt that either event seriously threatened coal-power electricity generation. But, any prolonged Powder River Basin coal supply disruption could quickly become a problem for the power sector. Especially considering that UP and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway — the only two railroad companies serving the region — both have struggled to meet Powder River Basin coal demand in recent years.
“Any new delivery challenges are coming on top of problems with rail deliveries over the past year or so, and will only add to coal supply concerns in the power sector,” Seth Feaster told WyoFile in June.
Feaster, an energy data analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said even delays of less than a week could impact the nation’s power sector, and would “not be welcome news for customers.
“Capacity constraints in the rail system may make it challenging to easily recover from missed shipments,” Feaster added.
The still lingering failure by the rail companies to meet demand — which both blame on workforce struggles after massive layoffs and the COVID-19 pandemic — resulted in an estimated loss of 50 million tons in Wyoming coal sales in 2022, according to the Wyoming Mining Association. That’s a loss of about $100 million in revenue to the state.
The issue has also resulted in millions of dollars in fuel replacement costs at some utilities, at least one Wyoming-related lawsuit, a closed-door meeting between BNSF and Wyoming lawmakers and a call for Union Pacific to appear before the Interim Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee on July 18 in Rock Springs.
Minerals committee co-chairman Rep. Donald Burkhart Jr. (R-Rawlins) — who convened the closed-door meeting with BNSF in February — said the committee merely wants to hear an update from UP when the body convenes next week.
“At this time, I know of no legislation being proposed regarding the railroads,” Burkhart told WyoFile via email this week.
Railroad labor unions have suggested possible measures to help counter what they claim is a headlong determination among railroads to reduce crew sizes, increase train lengths, defer maintenance and demand “inhuman” scheduling policies for their employees. None of those lobbying efforts have resulted in successful bills in Wyoming — so far.
Most recently, House Bill 204 – Allowable train lengths introduced this year would have limited the length of trains in Wyoming to prevent congestion. The measure was voted down in the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. Efforts to impose a minimum two-person train crew have also failed in the Legislature.
Though railroads appear to be improving performance to meet the demand to ship Wyoming coal in recent months, the situation appears a precarious, potential threat to the state’s mining industries, said Wyoming Mining Association Executive Director Travis Deti.
“Things have improved,” Deti told WyoFile regarding meeting demand for Wyoming coal-by-rail deliveries. “It’s not where it needs to be yet. But it has improved significantly over the past year. The train issues are still there.”
The minerals committee is scheduled to hear testimony from Union Pacific — and hear public comment on the issue — beginning at 2:15 p.m. July 18 at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs. Click here to join a livestream of the hearing.
The post A derailment and a tornado add to Wyoming’s coal-by-rail worries appeared first on WyoFile.
Slim pickings: Little sun, too much rain slowing Upper Valley berry season
This story by Patrick Adrian was first published by the Valley News on July 5.
WEST LEBANON, New Hampshire — With berry season underway, Upper Valley farmers said their pick-your-own patches could use more sunshine to offset June’s rainy days and cool temperatures. A mid-May freeze also killed or damaged many fruit blossoms.
While the impact may not be as noticeable to customers, the problems have been especially acute for strawberry growers. But a lack of sunlight and warmth also is causing delays to the start of raspberry and blueberry picking at many farms, as well as some anxiety about the weather to come.
“This has been a spring and early summer to forget,” said Becky Nelson of Beaver Pond Farm in Newport, New Hampshire. “We, like everyone else, are waterlogged. … We are hoping for some sunshine soon to sweeten the berries, as too much rain and not enough sunshine affect the taste.”
Newport saw nearly 5 inches of rainfall in June, the most for that month since 2015, which recorded 5.7 inches.
This amount of rainfall is not unprecedented, several farmers said. Since 2010, there have been five years where the Upper Valley accumulated at least 4 inches in June.
However, this past June the rain mostly occurred during the final two weeks — the heart of the strawberry-picking season.
On Tuesday, Wellwood Orchards in Springfield, Vermont, announced a sale on its PYO — or pick-your-own — strawberries of $1.99 per pint, a discount of 60%.
Linda Friedman, co-owner of Wellwood, said the end-of-season strawberry sale is intended to “clean up” the harvestable berries that remain in the patches.
“There are a lot of soft or rotting berries because of the rain, but there are a lot of good ones, too,” Friedman said. “And if people are making jam, they don’t care if some berries are soft.”
In previous summers, the strawberry picking might have continued an additional week, though the wetness and the lack of sun are limiting the season to three weeks, which is just within the low end of the average season duration, according to Friedman.
What has most impacted Upper Valley fruit growers this year was the brutal cold snap in May, which not only impacted early varieties of raspberries and blueberries but fruit trees including apples, peaches and cherries.
Wellwood, whose PYO apple orchard is a popular tourist destination during the fall, lost nearly all its apple blossoms — as well as its peach, plum and cherry blossoms — when the low temperature on May 18 plummeted to 23 degrees.
As a result, Friedman said that strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are Wellwood’s only pick-your-own fruits this year.
“That’s the really serious storyline,” Friedman said. “We’ll be lucky to have enough apples to put on our store shelves. We will have to try to be creative with our events in the fall.”
Friedman partly attributed the freeze’s impact to bad timing, in that it struck right when many fruit trees and bushes were blossoming.
“If it had happened a few days earlier or a few days later,” the freeze might not have such an issue, Friedman noted.
Keith and Kristy Brodeur, owners of Bascom Road Blueberry Farm in Newport, New Hampshire, said the freeze killed the blossoms on their early-variety blueberry bushes.
“Farmers in the last 50 years haven’t seen it get that cold that late into the season,” said Keith Brodeur, who researched historical records to determine the rarity of the freeze.
Brodeur said on Monday his opening date for pick-your-own blueberries will be about “a week to 10 days” later than past years.
“We were tentatively hoping to open this (coming) weekend, but we will need multiple days of sun (to fully ripen the fruit),” Brodeur said.
Pete Bartlett, of Bartlett’s Blueberry Farm in Newport, New Hampshire, also said his opening this year will be later than his “average” start date in recent years, which has usually been around the second week of July.
Bartlett noted that blueberry production in recent years has been ramping up slightly earlier than 30 years ago due to warmer temperatures in the growing area.
Nelson, of Beaver Pond Farm, who hopes to open her pick-your-own raspberries later this week, said the cold snap did some damage to her early-variety raspberries.
“The blueberries look good, and the raspberries seem to be starting out OK,” Nelson said. “We are beginning to see some frost damage, or ‘winter kill,’ in the raspberries where they seem to be forming a full crop, but then the vascular structure can’t keep up with the vascular damage. They look great at first, but then they wither and die before the berries are pickable.”
Pooh Sprague, owner of Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, New Hampshire, noted that the impacts of this season’s weather — including the cold snap — will differ from one farm to the next, based on their crops and operation.
While Edgewater provides pick-your-own strawberries, the majority of Sprague’s strawberries are harvested for wholesale — which relieves some of the stress about leaving berries exposed in the field to heavy amounts of moisture or about rain driving away customers to pick the berries.
“Pick-your-own is nice, but it’s not a dependable way to get rid of your crop,” Sprague said.
The rainfall has its benefits, Sprague noted. It helps the blueberries “size up,” for example. And despite the rain, the strawberries this year have been surprisingly flavorful.
But the rain needs to be balanced with sunshine, growers said.
“The biggest problem with the excess wet in any fields that have swales or dips is the potential for a waterborne fungal disease called phytopthora root rot,” Nelson said. “We lost an entire planting to it in the past, so we are hoping it doesn’t make a resurgence, as it can destroy entire raspberry plantings and affect other crops planted in that space down the road.”
“There is no amount of cultivating practice or chemical spray as a remedy when you’re dealing with this much wet and mugginess,” Sprague said.
The current weather forecast looks more promising than previously anticipated, with several fully or partly sunny days projected between today and July 14.
“I think it’s going to be an average year for us,” Brodeur said.
“But it’s hard to say until the season’s over.”
Read the story on VTDigger here: Slim pickings: Little sun, too much rain slowing Upper Valley berry season.