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.
Immediately BP replaced Amoco's environmental manager who hadn't done much for cleanup with a can-do wildlife advocate named Joe Deschamp. Rea, who had been appointed by the Joint Powers Board to a subcommittee charged with enhancing wetlands, worked with Deschamp to make habitat in and around Soda Lake even more productive and, at the same time, turn the area into a wildlife education center. BP created the nesting islands Rea and I had walked to, protected them from wave erosion with uncontaminated concrete refinery rubble, and protected nesters from foxes and coyotes by digging deep, encircling trenches. It erected osprey platforms and developed walking trails and a road system. So impressed by Deschamp's crew and their work was Audubon's then president, John Flicker, that he wrote in an email to Bart Rea in 2000: "I think the BP people I talked with are ready to do more than just fencing, blinds, and access roads at Soda Lake. They would like to be associated with Audubon education as their image, not as toxic polluters, and I think they are willing to pay what it takes to make that happen."
For the remediation project BP (along with its collaborators, most notably the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Joint Powers Board) received Wyoming's Recognition of Accomplishment Award, two EPA National Notable Achievement Awards, two EPA Environmental Achievement Awards, the Wyoming Engineering Society's Presidential Project Award, and the American Council of Engineering Companies' Grand Award.
This aberrant display of corporate responsibility on the part of a major energy company might be explained with three words: Lord John Browne. Browne, an ardent environmentalist, was a board member of Birdlife International and BP's CEO. He spoke proudly of his company's work at Soda Lake, and under his watch BP did things like donate 29,000 acres in Alberta to the Nature Conservancy of Canada. "No damage to the natural environment" was his command to his employees.
But in 2007 Deschamp retired, and Browne, accused of sexual improprieties, resigned. Again, the attitude changed almost overnight. BP transferred its refinery site and non-producing, sensitive properties to Atlantic Richfield (which it had recently acquired), and its interest in wildlife evaporated like spit on a glowing wood stove.
In 2008 pumping to Soda Lake ceased. This despite the fact that the company had assured the environmental community that it would maintain Soda Lake's level as long as it treated groundwater effluent--80 to 100 years. Instead, with a permit from the DEQ, BP started dumping the groundwater into the golf course ponds and river. In the treatment process it currently recovers and sells about 40,000 gallons of oil per month.
Two years before it permanently weaned Soda Lake of water, BP had sponsored a tour for local wildlife advocates. Participating was Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming and National Audubon's vice president for the Rocky Mountain Region. BP had lowered the lake to dredge the inlet basin, but it informed Rutledge that it was finishing up its work and would soon raise the water level for the benefit of wildlife. "We were taken to the nesting islands," he said. "We were told that the lake would soon be up and the islands would be islands again. Since then the lake has been drying up, and we haven't heard a peep from BP."
BP's excuse for shutting off the flow was an alleged leak or leaks in the pipeline (buried only about four feet in the ground) that it hadn't been able to locate and that no one else had heard about. As surprised as anyone was Pete Ramirez, environmental contaminants specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who has advised BP and the Wyoming DEQ on the ecological risks of a dewatered Soda Lake. "The documents for the risk assessment, the remediation, and all the stuff done through the collaborative process--everything they put out said the pipeline was in okay shape," he says.
And Rea offers this: "Why did they decide to quit doing what they said they were going to do? Because the pipeline is leaking and they can't find where? Well, that's ridiculous. That's not a valid reason."
Deschamp declined to tell me what he thinks about BP's decision to deep-six all his hard, expensive work and thereby extinguish this essential waterfowl, wading bird, and shorebird habitat. BP's press office was unable to give me a contact person but assured me that someone would get back to me. No one did. Finally, I tracked down Chuck Stilwell in Anchorage, Alaska, as far as I could determine the last person to serve in Deschamp's former capacity. Stilwell informed me that he no longer had responsibility for Casper but gave me an Illinois phone number for one David Clauson, who supposedly is now in charge. Clauson didn't return my phone calls.
When I asked Stilwell why BP had decided to let Soda Lake dry up, he said this: "There are always several options for dealing with water coming from the remediation work. One is to pump it to Soda Lake. The other is to put it into the North Platte River near the site for water-rights users. There are costs and benefits to both choices. The local governmental representatives actually preferred it to go into the river." I was unable to uncover a shred of evidence that this is the case, but I did learn that Soda Lake's annual water requirement is so minuscule that water-rights holders along the North Platte would basically be unaffected. He went on to say that the pipeline "could [my emphasis] have been in serious shape," that BP's "understanding was that it was leaking," that replacing it would have been "quite expensive," and that BP might consider "putting in guzzlers for upland game and upland birds."