Wake up, BP, and Restore Wyoming’s Soda Lake
There was a sudden explosion of plants, invertebrates, and mammals (all of which could crawl under the fence). New, succulent vegetation brought in pronghorns. With the mass arrival of birds and small mammals came foxes, coyotes, badgers, and bobcats. “The amazing thing was that the water didn’t kill birds,” said Rea as we stood over the dike, now dry and rank with Russian olive. “The inlet basin was so awful the birds wouldn’t go near it. I did find a dead pelican there once. By the time the water got into the main lake it was clean enough that I never saw any significant mortality.”
The new Soda Lake provided a PR gold mine for Amoco. “Yant’s puddle,” as it came to be called, became national news. True magazine featured it in an eight-page piece entitled “A Sick River Is Returned to Nature.” The Oil and Gas Journal gushed about how Amoco “is willing to match action to words in the industry’s insistence that energy and the environment can live in harmony.” And Amoco ran full-page ads in such publications as Scientific American and The Wall Street Journal under the heading of “A bird watcher’s guide to Amoco’s environmental efforts” and in which it accurately proclaimed that “biological management has turned a waste water pond into the state’s most prolific habitat for birds and other wildlife.”
Thanks in large measure to Amoco’s leadership, the fishless North Platte River again started producing trout. But the earth and groundwater below and around the refinery held an estimated 10 million to 20 million gallons of oil that had leaked from pipes and tanks since 1912, and anglers complained that the trout tasted like oil. So in 1981 Amoco dug two eight-foot-diameter, state-of-the art wells to pump out and treat the contaminated groundwater.
After Amoco shut down the refinery in 1991 it continued to be a good neighbor, maintaining Soda Lake and its wildlife by pumping water straight from the river along with treated groundwater effluent.
But what had been brilliant, leading-edge environmental remediation in Buchler’s and Yant’s day didn’t cut it in the 1990s. Now there was an Environmental Protection Agency and, by 1995, a “brownfields” law that mandated and partly funded cleanup and redevelopment of sites contaminated by such toxins as petroleum waste.
Amoco—the company that had, as it claimed, supplied “energy to help meet America’s needs while preserving the environment”—now reverted to type, recalled Rea, fighting the regulators “every inch of the way.”
In 1996 a group of citizens sued the company on grounds that its brownfields at the refinery site posed an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to human health and the environment. And in 1998 U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer ruled that the public had a right to expect a “concerted, honest cleanup effort from the company that benefited greatly from the community and its surrounding natural resources.” The same year BP bought Amoco, acquiring its messes along with its assets.
Rea and his fellow activists realized that restoring the 4,000-acre former refinery site to the standards required by the EPA would take forever and do nothing for wildlife. So, organized as the Citizens Facilitation Initiative, they got the state legislature to enact a law that prohibited human habitation but allowed recreation. The Casper City Council and the Natrona County Commission appointed an Amoco Reuse Joint Powers Board to manage all properties save Soda Lake. On the refinery site the board developed a bird sanctuary, an office park, a light industrial park, a restaurant, an 18-hole golf course with pollution-purifying wetlands that double as water hazards, and a whitewater park for kayaking, canoeing, and rafting.
The remediation tasks BP agreed to undertake after it signed a district-court consent decree were daunting. The company drove 9,000 feet of 35- to 40-foot-high steel containment wall into bedrock along the river, installed pumps to keep groundwater levels six inches below the river level, constructed a $15 million groundwater treatment facility, drained Soda Lake’s inlet basin, dug out 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments, then capped the bottom with 26,000 tons of sand. It constructed multilayered lined pits, complete with monitoring wells, to permanently seal off the sediments and all manner of contaminated rubble from the refinery site. And it gave the Joint Powers Board $28 million for redevelopment.
“When BP bought Amoco the attitude changed almost overnight,” said Rea. “It was: ‘Let’s get this done. Do what you have to do.’ ” As a voluntary public service, BP kept river water flowing to Soda Lake. It even built an expensive new bridge over the North Platte (with a pedestrian deck tied in to riverside trails) to raise the Soda Lake pipeline high enough for rafters, canoes, and kayaks to pass underneath.