Wake up, BP, and Restore Wyoming’s Soda Lake
The last thing that the nation’s most maligned oil company needs is another black eye. So it remains a mystery why, after being such a good neighbor for so long, it refuses to honor its pledge to maintain one of the most important waterfowl, wading bird, and shorebird habitats on the Central Flyway.
Wind-driven snow stung our faces and blurred our vision last April when geologist and Audubon Wyoming board member Bart Rea guided me around Soda Lake, just north of Casper, Wyoming. “There’s our eagle,” he declared, pointing at the fuzzy silhouette of a raptor perched on a fence post. The previous afternoon we’d seen a golden sculling around the desiccated lake with slow, powerful wing beats that blew frightened California gulls and cormorants into the air like thistle down and coal ash.
But as we watched through binoculars our “eagle” preened and, to our delight, transformed into a peregrine falcon.
BP (formerly British Petroleum) created Soda Lake as a repository for refinery waste, and it owns about 2,200 acres of grassland that surrounds it. The lake became one of those happy accidents whereby an environmentally damaging commercial enterprise (such as Nebraska’s fencerow-to-fencerow plowers who sustain sandhill cranes with waste grain) partly compensates for its destruction of natural habitat. When the main lake was at full 667-acre capacity it had been one of the most important waterfowl, wading bird, and shorebird habitats in the Central Flyway, sustaining many species that aren’t much seen elsewhere in Wyoming, such as western sandpipers, snowy egrets, ring-billed gulls, white-faced ibis, black-crowned night-herons, lesser scaup, gadwalls, northern pintails, redheads, canvasbacks, American white pelicans, and Caspian terns (all on Audubon’s WatchList).
Soda Lake, an increasingly birdless Audubon Important Bird Area, had national importance to migratory species because it was situated on the western fringe of the Central Flyway—an area with scant water suitable for stopovers because so many other Central Flyway ponds have been drained or filled for crop production. Currently the lake covers fewer than 200 acres, and it’s shrinking fast. We walked to the islands created by BP to protect nesting birds. Now, easily accessible to skunks, foxes, and coyotes, they were littered with bird bones. Since 2008, when BP decided to economize by shutting off the pumps that maintained Soda Lake, the increasing saline content has been wiping out the plants and invertebrates the birds depend on and, in the process, creating a toxic, predator-infested death trap for species that wade or swim. The Caspian tern nesting colony has been wiped out.
Even if you live in Wyoming you probably haven’t heard about the bizarre history of Soda Lake or the dual personality of BP. You may be surprised to learn that at times the company has been a champion of wildlife. If the bureaucrats far removed from their Casper, Wyoming, properties and the realities of the natural world are awakened in time, BP can make a major contribution to bird conservation, for an estimated cost of just $100,000 annually, and shed some of the image it acquired when it trashed the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
The story of Soda Lake’s birth and demise begins in 1912 at a site in Casper where Midwest Oil and Franco Petroleum started refining the oil that had been discovered four years earlier in central Wyoming. From then until well into the second half of the century, waste products from oil refining here and elsewhere were routinely dumped into water. In Casper the repository was the North Platte River, which was soon rendered unfit even for carp.
In 1948 Congress imposed modest clean-water standards, and to maintain the momentum, Wyoming hatched a Pollution Control Advisory Council, to which it appointed C.C. “Doc” Buchler, manager of the refinery (at this point owned by American Oil Co.). But Buchler turned out to be one fox that not only guarded the henhouse but cleaned it up in the process. Instead of dumping partially treated effluent into the river, he decided that his refinery was going to set a national example by dumping none at all—and damn the expense. “He never had a bit of sympathy for other industries,” Art Williamson, then director of the state’s new Division of Environmental Sanitation, told True magazine in 1966. “They’d come in and say, ‘This is going to cost us to beat hell,’ and he’d answer, ‘I know what it’s costing; I spent a million and a half bucks on it.’ ”
Buchler assigned the pollution-control job to his chief engineer, Joe Yant, a wildlife advocate and member of the Wyoming Audubon Society (which later became the Murie Audubon Society). Yant found a naturally sealed disposal area almost five miles north of the refinery—a big depression underlain by impervious shale. At the lowest point there was a tiny ephemeral pond called Old Soda Lake, because of its high alkali content. Yant designed a main lake of 667 acres and a connected 45-acre settling pond (inlet basin). American Oil (Amoco) bought 2,200 acres of surrounding upland, enclosed it with eight miles of heavy fence, ran a 4.7-mile, 12-inch steel pipe to the inlet basin, and started pumping effluent into it in June 1957.
The nasty stuff settled out in the inlet basin like coffee grounds in a mug, and the clean water on top flowed through a dike, via an overflow drain, into the main lake. The results were stunning. Soda Lake’s alkali content went from 20,000 parts per million to a drinkable (at least for wildlife) 7,000. So well had Yant designed the system that evaporation from the main lake equaled input from the refinery, and the water level remained stable.