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Fire at West Liberty Foods

Officials are still working to determine the cause of a fire that broke out early last Friday at the West Liberty Foods meat processing in plant in Tremonton, injuring three employees, forcing evacuations of nearby homes and causing at least $1.5 million in estimated property damage.

Shortly after 5:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 2, firefighters from Tremonton and Garland responded to the sprawling facility located at 705 N. 2000 West, where a fire that started in a main boiler room on the west side of the plant was sending tall flames from the roof into the early morning darkness. They were joined by crews from the Fielding and Brigham City departments, with all four agencies working together to put the fire out within about two hours.

Blair Westergard, battalion chief for the Tremonton Fire Department, said the initial call indicated that an employee had received burns. It was later discovered that three maintenance workers had been burned, one of whom was taken by ambulance to Bear River Valley Hospital. The other two drove themselves to the nearby hospital for medical attention, Westergard said.

“We found out that maybe the injured were just looking under the door, and it flashed and got them,” Westergard said. “(The injuries) are all just minor – significant, but minor.”

The main concern of firefighters was that the flames could reach a nearby area where tanks containing some 50,000 pounds of highly flammable ammonia, which the plant uses in its refrigeration systems, are located.

The boiler room, which Westergard described as a total loss, was in an outbuilding separate from the main facility, which helped in keeping the fire from spreading. However, because of the potential for the blaze to reach the area where the chemicals are stored, homes along several blocks of 2300 West were evacuated for about two hours until the situation was brought under control.

The chemical hazard also forced firefighters to operate in what Westergard called “defense mode.

“The one building (boiler room) was already involved enough that we weren’t going to send anybody in,” he said. “We fought it from afar because of the potential of the ammonia.”

He said there were a total of four engines, two ladder trucks and two ambulances on the scene.

Employees were evacuated and sent north to the area of the Premier Truck Group of Tremonton facilities on 1000 North while firefighters continued to work.

The Utah State Fire Marshal’s office is investigating the blaze, along with officials from West Liberty Foods and the company that supplied the boiler. A cause has yet to be determined, but Westergard said it is not suspicious.

The damage was mostly limited to the building containing the boiler, but some employee vehicles in the parking lot nearby were also damaged. The initial estimate of damage was at least $1.5 million.

A top official at West Liberty Foods LLC said the fire should have a minimal impact on operations at the Tremonton facility.

Dan Waters, vice president and general counsel for the West Liberty, Iowa-based company, said the fire cut off access to hot water for two production lines. There are other boilers at the site, and the company was working on a solution to get water from those boilers to the affected lines.

“Some people will not report for second shift tonight and beyond that, I’m not aware of any shifts being canceled,” Waters said Friday afternoon. “It should be a relatively minor disruption in production, and nobody should lose a job or be furloughed” because of the fire.

He said that because of the potential fire hazard, the plant was purposely designed to have boilers in outbuildings rather than inside the main building.

The Tremonton facility is one of the top suppliers of sandwich meats for the Subway restaurant chain. It also supplies meat products for Costco and other large clients.

Waters confirmed that three employees sustained burns to their hands and faces, but all were out of the hospital by lunchtime Friday.

“We’re sorry that people got hurt, but we’re grateful it’s not worse,” he said.

He said several employee vehicles were damaged, one of them badly. The company is arranging for those employees to have rental cars, and will cover their repair costs, he said.

Waters said he has been with West Liberty Foods since before it opened its first plant in 1996. The company also has manufacturing plants in Iowa and Illinois, and this is the first time there has been such a fire at any of its facilities.

“This is a one-time event in the history of West Liberty Foods,” he said.

LDS leaders call for end to racism, protest violence

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Top leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged members at last weekend’s General Conference to root out racism and make the faith an “oasis of unity” while also decrying violence at recent racial injustice protests they said amounted to “anarchy.”

“God does not love one race more than another,” Church President Russell M. Nelson said on Sunday. “His doctrine on this matter is clear. I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin.”

Dallin H. Oaks, the second-highest-ranking leader of the faith, said peaceful protests are protected by the U.S. constitution but spoke out forcefully against actions at recent rallies that he said go beyond what is protected by law.

“Protesters have no right to destroy, deface or steal property or to undermine the government’s legitimate police powers,” said Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice. “The constitution and laws contain no invitation to revolution or anarchy.”

The speech was delivered at a conference being held in Salt Lake City without attendees because of the pandemic and when many members are living through a reckoning over racial injustice, especially in the U.S. following the May police killing of Black man George Floyd.

Oaks tried to strike a balance between preaching unity and obedience to the faith’s 16.6 million adherents worldwide. He called on members to help root out racism against people of all cultures.

“This country should be better in eliminating racism, not only against Black Americans ... but also against Latinos, Asians, and other groups,” Oaks said. “This nation’s history of racism is not a happy one and we must do better.”

Fellow church leader Quentin L. Cook, also a member of a top governing panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, made a similar plea for the religion to become a big tent for people of all racial and cultural backgrounds.

“With our all-inclusive doctrine, we can be an oasis of unity and celebrate diversity,” Cook said.

Neither Oaks nor Cooks mentioned the church’s past ban on Black men in the lay priesthood, a prohibition rooted in the belief that black skin was a curse. The ban stood until 1978 and lingers as one of the most sensitive topics in the faith’s history.

The church disavowed the ban and the reasons behind it in a 2013 essay — explaining that it was enacted during an era of great racial divide that influenced the church’s early teachings. But the church has never issued a formal apology for the ban, a sore spot for some members.

The Utah-based religion doesn’t provide ethnic or racial breakdowns of its members, but scholars say Black members make up a small portion of followers.

Members of African descent account for at least 8% of Latter-day Saints globally while African-Americans likely make up 3-5% of U.S. members, according to Matt Martinich, a church member who analyzes its numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.

Estimating how many members are Latino or Asian is much more difficult, Martinich said.

Since taking over the First Presidency in 2018, Nelson has preached for racial harmony and mutual respect. Nelson has launched a formal partnership with the NAACP.

The church grew more diverse in 2018 when it selected to the previously all-white Quorum of the Twelve the first-ever Latin American apostle, Ulisses Soares, and the first-ever apostle of Asian ancestry, Gerrit W. Gong. There are still no Black men on the panel.

Saturday’s conference is the second one held this year without an audience. In April, a similar event marked the first time since World War II that the conference was held without attendees.

The faith’s top leaders sat six feet apart on a stage alongside floral arrangements. They wore masks when they weren’t speaking, each sitting in elegant dark red chairs. Many of the leaders are older than 70, including the 96-year-old Nelson.

Gong was not there alongside fellow leaders because he might have been exposed to the coronavirus and stayed home, church officials said. His speech was prerecorded.

The conference normally attracts some 100,000 people to the church conference center in Salt Lake City.

Addressing the pandemic, church leaders said it will help people grow spiritually.

“We are here on earth to be tested, to see if we will choose to follow Jesus Christ, to repent regularly, to learn, and to progress,” Nelson said.

In his comments about politics, Oaks preached civility but followed long-standing precedence for church leaders to remain politically neutral.

“In a democratic government we will always have differences over proposed candidates and policies,” Oaks said. “However, as followers of Christ we must forego the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.”

While church leaders sometimes weigh in about what they consider crucial moral issues, they are careful not to endorse candidates or parties. Church members have historically leaned heavily Republican, but the GOP’s grip on the faith’s voters has slipped slightly under President Donald Trump, according to the Pew Research Center.

During the 2016 presidential election, the church defended religious liberty after Trump suggested banning Muslims from entering the U.S.

Church leader Patrick Kearon made a brief mention of the current political climate in the conference’s opening prayer when he said, “We yearn for a return to grace, dignity and civility in public life.”

District in dire need of substitute bus drivers

The Box Elder School District is always looking for bus drivers, and the need is even greater now because of COVID-19.

In a social media post last week, the school district wrote that “a number of circumstances,” including the pandemic, has caused a shortage of drivers that is making it difficult to get high-school students to and from sporting events and other extracurricular activities.

“Student routes to/from school receive first priority. Currently we are short drivers to fill all the routes necessary to accomplish this, obliging the office staff to fill in,” the post explained. “This makes it difficult for regular drivers to take activity trips for student activities as there are no subs available to cover their routes.”

District Transportation Supervisor Keevin Nelson said the situation is complicated by the fact that sports teams at Bear River and Box Elder high schools compete in different regions.

“Our biggest issue is the time of day kids have to leave,” Nelson said. “If Box Elder has to go to Farmington or Bountiful, they might have to leave at 2:45. On the other hand, the Bear River bus can go to Cache Valley at 3:30 or 4:00 and get there in time.”

He said no students have had to miss activities yet because of the driver shortage, but it has put a strain on mechanics and office staff, who become the substitute drivers when no one else is available. All district transportation employees have the required commercial licenses to drive the buses, he said.

The bottom line is that the district needs more substitute drivers with flexible schedules who can fill in for regular drivers on short notice. Regular drivers work part time, so most have other jobs or obligations that come up.

The district wants new drivers who can be trained quickly to cover regular routes to and from school, which would free up more experienced drivers to handle the sports and activity routes, Nelson said.

Many drivers are in their 60s and recently retired, he said, and that age group often finds bus driving to be a way to earn some money without too much of a time commitment. A typical substitute driver works one to 1.5 hours once or twice a week.

“We like those types of drivers,” he said. “They can fill in or help however they can.”

Some of that help could also include answering phones at the district transportation office during peak times at the beginning and end of the school day.

All drivers are required to obtain a commercial driver license, for which the district provides periodic training. The district was originally planning to start a CDL certification course on Oct. 29, but decided to move up the date to this Friday, Oct. 9 because of the immediate need for more personnel.

Training consists of a combination of online training modules and behind-the-wheel experience with an instructor, beginning with a four-hour class to go over the basics of safety and bus operation.

Pay starts at $18.83 per hour for new drivers, who receive a $100 bonus after 90 days of driving and a $250 bonus after 180 days.

Friday’s training course begins at 8 a.m. at the district transportation facilities located at 1675 N. 2000 West, near the Brigham City Airport. For more information or to sign up, call the transportation office at (435) 734-4839.

Nelson said that even without the extra strain put on by the pandemic, the driver shortage is likely to persist without an influx of new drivers, especially with rapid growth in areas like Collinston, Deweyville, Perry and Willard.

“Typically we have drivers retire at Christmas, because of the break, and come May because of the end of the school year,” he said. “Are we gonna have subs available to replace those that retire? It’s a concern every year.”