Gasoline seeping from an undetermined source and flowing into the Middle Fork Popo Agie River in downtown Lander caught fire over the weekend as contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency worked to build semi-permanent barriers around recently discovered seeps.
An unknown quantity of gasoline had been seeping into the Popo Agie before locals noticed gas fumes coming off the water in early April.
State and federal regulators are as yet unaware of how long seepage was occurring before the discovery, how much gasoline found its way into the river and what the source of the fugitive gasoline is.
Regulators view a gas station’s storage tanks about 50 feet away from the water as the likely culprit, but according to an Environmental Protection Agency preliminary report, investigations spread to nearby facilities and the septic system.
“Obviously, we recognize that that is a very likely source,” Keith Guille, spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, said of the Maverik gas station near the river.
However, the gas station’s storage tanks are modern facilities, Guille said, equipped with leak detection systems. Those warning triggers were not tripped, he said.
“That’s where the challenge is,” Guille said of identifying the source of the contamination.
Locals alerted the Lander Fire Department on April 2 of gas fumes rising from the river as it ran through town, and local response teams identified sheen on the river’s surface. The fire department tracked the gas discharge to a location just south of Main Street where gas appeared to be entering the water, according to the EPA preliminary report.
Contractors for state and federal regulators have installed floating containment devices, or booms, to keep the gas from spreading. The Environmental Protection Agency team planned to install a concrete barrier attached to the bank to keep contamination from continuing to enter the river, though the snowstorm Wednesday slowed construction.
The Popo Agie is a popular spot for recreation and local fishing. It flows out of the Wind River Range at Sinks Canyon, eventually joining the Little Wind River farther north.
Concern locally is fairly high, said Ron Hansen, co-owner of Wind River Outdoor Company in Lander. Sportsmen in particular are questioning the long-term impact to fish habitat and how far downstream the contamination may have reached. State and federal regulators appear confident about containment, but locals are unsure of how bad this is, he said.
“Seems like they’ve put a Band-Aid on it,” Hansen said of current controls.
Hansen is also co-owner of a gas station near the Maverik that may be the source of the gasoline and said he agreed with local sentiment that gasoline storage at that location was probably unwise.
“This isn’t good, not just for Maverik’s but for the industry as a whole,” Hansen said. He added that it appeared that Maverik had done everything right in terms of following the rules the for safety and security of those tanks.
“The biggest thing now is to not cast blame,” he said. “Crap happens. It doesn’t look to be malicious. Let’s get it contained and fixed.”
The Environmental Protection Agency’s response team arrived April 4. The federal agency joined a crowded field of responders including the state, local fire and law enforcement, the Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and contractors.
Craig Giggleman, the onsite coordinator for the EPA, said the soil and rock on the banks of the Popo Agie is so porous that it’s been challenging for the team to contain the seeps. The EPA’s contractors have dug down to the underlying shale, beneath the identified seeps, to ensure that they are contained in the concrete barriers that are under construction. Construction was halted Wednesday by the snowstorm and had already been slowed by a fire over the weekend, when a spark ignited the gasoline. The local fire department responded to that incident. No one was hurt in the fire.
Giggleman noted that the barrier is not intended to be a long-term solution and that the EPA will return if the problem continues.
“If it comes back, we come back,” he said, of future seeps, echoing a sentiment he said he shared with county and town officials in a meeting Wednesday.
Guille of the Department of Environmental Quality said the investigation into where the petroleum product is coming from is ongoing.
“Obviously there are two things (to do): investigate where it is coming from and ensure that the stream is protected,” Guille said.