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Wyoming depends on the energy industry for its economic survival. It’s been that way for the better part of a century, and likely will remain into the foreseeable future. But anytime a company spends decades dumping chemicals on the ground, or digging minerals out of the earth, or carving away mountainsides for elements, there are chances for mistakes.

Companies go bankrupt. Hazards go unnoticed. CEOs are simply negligent. Stories of polluted rivers, collapsing underground coal mines and smoggy air dot our state's landscape.

There are success stories, too, said Harold Bergman, an environmental physiologist and toxicologist at the University of Wyoming.

In the 1970s, when Wyoming lawmakers opened their arms to massive coal mines that spread across the Powder River Basin, the Legislature passed the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act. Reclamation of coal mines was required, and the rest of the country followed Wyoming’s example.

“Usually when it comes to environmental regulation, one looks toward California or New York in leading the way in how to deal with a problem,” Bergman said. “You can tell of the horror stories about environmental issues, but Wyoming can lead, and has led in the past.”

Wyoming can learn from those successes, but it can also learn from failures, said Phil Roberts, a UW historian.

The Star-Tribune talked with Bergman, Roberts and other environmental experts about the top three industry-caused environmental issues of the Cowboy State’s past, and the top three Wyoming faces now.

Past

Tie Baxter Plant in Laramie

For about 90 years, the Union Pacific Railroad soaked railroad ties with a mixture of creosote, pentachlorophenol and oil. The chemicals kept railroad ties from rotting, which kept trains from derailing, which kept people and cargo safe.

But for 90 years, thousands of gallons of the toxins soaked into about 140-acres of ground next to the Laramie River.

By the early 1980s, after years of complaints by Laramie residents, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality paid for a portion of a University of Wyoming research project. The researcher, one of Bergman’s graduate students, walked along the frozen Laramie River inserting Teflon tubes through the ice and into the underlying mud sampling groundwater beneath.

“He struck oil, and then walked the river and there were blebs of creosote and oil bubbling to the top,” Bergman said.

Each time the Laramie River flooded in the spring, the student found, the groundwater table rose forcing the oily mess into the river. The Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a Super Fund site, and negotiations began to figure out a fix.

Union Pacific paid for an engineering firm to divert the Laramie River away from the site and built an underground wall of bentonite around the polluted area to contain the mess. The company then began pumping water, oil and toxins out of the ground.

The area remained on the Super Fund list until 1999. To this day, the engineering firm still monitors the groundwater and land.

Gas Hills near Jeffrey City

Most people never see uranium mines. The mineral is removed in-situ, which means it is dissolved in chemicals and brought to the surface in a stream of water. The only evidence of the mine is a small oil well-like box on the surface. 

That wasn’t always the case, however.

In the 1950s, when companies began mining the Gas Hills in central Wyoming, uranium mining meant moving mountains for yellowcake, said Phil Roberts, a UW historian. 

Huge pits were excavated, and the rock tailings disposed in leaching areas sometimes created potential hazards for miners and the landscape, he said.

In 2007, the state Abandoned Mine Lands program manager told the Star-Tribune reclamation efforts in the Gas Hills area could extend another decade and cost $100 million. 

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“It was in parts of the state where people thought, ‘Who will be out there, anyway?'" Roberts said. "It was obvious to anyone who was around those, it was definitely disturbing the area.”

Standard Oil Refinery, Casper

In 1914, Standard Oil Company moved to the then cow-town of Casper and bought a section of land along the North Platte River. Oil was starting to boom in the state, and the Salt Creek Oil Field near Midwest needed somewhere to process its crude.

The refinery flourished for decades. There were few controls on what it dumped onto the land, said Anne MacKinnon, former editor of the Casper Star-Tribune.

Little remediation had been done when the refinery closed in 1991. Soon after, a citizen’s group sued Amoco, Burlington Northern and Steiner Corp. to clean the site, which was leaching so much oil into the North Platte River it could be scooped from the surface, according to Star-Tribune archives.

A judge ordered Amoco to clean the mess, which resulted in a wall built underground along the river and millions of dollars spent removing contaminated dirt, steel and concrete. Environmental experts forbid housing on the site because of possible toxins, MacKinnon said, and ultimately a golf course was created in the refinery’s place.

Challenges

Sage grouse

Few decisions in Wyoming’s history have loomed as large as the fate of a chicken-sized brown bird.

The state's oil and gas industry hangs in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which will decide this year whether to place the sage grouse on the endangered species list. A listing could prohibit development in much of Wyoming.

Many experts believe habitat fragmentation is the reason the bird’s numbers have decreased to the point where it could be listed. Experts say what Wyoming and the West does in the future to protect the bird’s habitat could impact not only the bird’s future, but Wyoming’s.

Flaring

When oil rigs bring liquid gold to the surface, they also bring natural gas. While gas is a commodity, some oil fields are not connected to pipelines that can capture it. An October report showed, “Wyoming energy companies flared enough natural gas through the first 10 months of 2014 to fuel the Cheyenne Prairie Generating Station for 130 days,” according to Star-Tribune archives.

Environmentalists argue flared gas contains pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide. Some groups are requesting the state require companies submit plans to capture the gas before drilling a well, a plan North Dakota recently implemented.

Companies say it’s not possible to capture all of the gas without access to pipelines. Environmentalists say new regulations are needed to protect the health of its citizens. 

For now, Wyoming regulators say they’re working on their own solution.

Climate change

Wyoming’s 2012 fire season was the worst on record. More than 1,300 blazes burned across about 600,000 acres of Wyoming forest and grassland. The state and federal government spent almost $43 million fighting the flames.

The next two years were calmer, but climate researchers show a pattern of consistent warming and drying across Wyoming and the West. Glaciers are melting in high-elevation mountains, draining Wyoming’s frozen reservoirs. The first three months of 2015 were the warmest in the state’s recorded history.

While Wyoming feels the brunt of a warming planet, it could also feel the brunt of regulations intended to curb the phenomenon.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a plan in June to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Wyoming supplies the country with 40 percent of its coal.

“We have to figure out how to address this and how the state is going to survive into the future,” Bergman said. “It’s a big, complex problem. But man is at least partially, and probably substantially, responsible for these changes. ... We can’t ignore the laws of physics.”

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Follow Assistant Content Director Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside.

 

 

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