The arching frame of a steel gate towering over the rolling prairie 20 miles east of Cheyenne was once the first line of defense for a Cold War weapon considered the world’s last resort.
In the 1960s, three intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of traveling nearly 9,000 miles lay waiting beyond the gate. The site’s airmen could send the Atlas D missiles and their nuclear payloads en route to targets across the globe in little more than 30 seconds.
The once-lethal silos’ six-foot thick concrete walls now house classic cars, a semi-restored caboose and the remains of a failed tire disposal venture. Missile silos are now mere storage facilities.
Today, the gate protects the decaying legacy of Atlas missile site No. 3, punctuated by concrete and steel. But the most concerning remnant of the silos’ glory years can’t be found above ground.
For nearly 13 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality have worked to clean groundwater contamination caused by the improper drainage of trichloroethylene.
The cleaning solution, commonly referred to as TCE, is known to cause cancer and liver damage if consumed, and it is found in seven Atlas missile sites surrounding Cheyenne.
Wyoming politicians and environmental officials are left to question the Corps’ remediation methods as years drag on without a conclusive remediation plan.
Craig Johnson, a 70-year-old machinist and welder in Cheyenne, looked over site No. 3 at the test wells dotting the expanse of his land.
“They just perforated this property,” he said. “There’s 330 acres here and a lot of wells out there. I don’t really want those guys tromping around out here all of the time. I should get some compensation for that.”
Johnson’s family bought the missile site in the late '70s. At the time, his father, the owner of a Cheyenne salvage yard, used the 330 acres surrounding the silos as a storage unit for 15,000 salvaged cars.
After his father's death, Johnson began cleaning the site with the hope of selling the property.
His plans ended in 2001, when the Corps began investigating Cheyenne missile sites for TCE contamination as part of an initiative to clean formerly used defense sites. After the discovery of a 1.5-mile-long contamination plume at the site, interest in the property evaporated.
“I’d like to sell it,” Johnson said. “There have been a lot of people interested in it until you tell them about the contamination. I’m not going to lie to them.”
Today, the Corps operates two wells on the site to pump and treat water for the removal of TCE. The Corps recently predicted remediation processes taking more than 350 years to complete in the area.
Across the fence to the southeast from Johnson’s property, rancher Dennis Baer marks the leading edge of the plume with a lonely set of test wells. The contamination is spreading through Baer’s land at a rate of 150 feet per year.
“I don’t like that it’s under there, but they are trying to take responsibility for it, which is right that they do,” he said. “They made it. If they were willing to dump a phenomenal amount of money into it, they could clean it up quicker. But I don’t know if they ever can clean it up completely.”
For Baer, the contamination is characterized by little more than a stack of more than a dozen incomprehensible binders complete with scientific data and maps from the Corps.
Tucked in the corner of a cubicle in the fourth-floor Herschler Building office of the Wyoming DEQ in Cheyenne, another stack of binders has taken over a bookcase of its own.
The reports include site reports for the seven contaminated Atlas sites surrounding Cheyenne. At the 13-year mark, results are hard to come by.
“I can’t give you great answers because I don’t have answers,” said George Halyak, community co-chair of the Atlas missile site No. 4 remediation advisory board.
Halyak and his board of community members are statutorily tasked with advising the U.S. Department of Defense on the cleanup of missile site No. 4.
The site’s 12- to 15-mile plume of contamination west of Cheyenne prompted construction of the Sherard water treatment plant to save a field of Cheyenne municipal water wells contaminated by the plume.
The plant’s operations treat the contamination but do nothing to treat its source.
“You have a source area and the pollution that’s moved on from it,” Halyak said. “The simplicity here is: Clean up the source, then clean up the plume. They’ll be pumping that forever if they don’t take care of that source.”
Wyoming DEQ geological supervisor Jane Francis heads the department’s work on site No. 3. For Francis, the prediction of a centuries-long time frame for completion at site No. 3 isn’t defensible.
“What you do when you build a model is collect data on TCE over time,” she said. “You have to have that data, and we don’t have that yet. If you don’t have good data going in, you won’t get a good model.”
The DEQ and the Corps are working to agree to a proposed remediation plan. At a November meeting to discuss the Corps' proposal, the DEQ voiced its concern about the lack of treatment at the source area of site No. 3.
No timeline has been given for a final decision on the proposed plan, but if it is issued this month, the Corps would need another eight months to hold a public hearing and draft the remediation work plan.
Drew Reckmeyer, environmental remediation branch chief at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha district, said a fast solution to source area treatment isn't feasible with current technologies.
"We have a different view of the realistic situation than DEQ does," he said. "There’s not a resistance to treating the source area. We aren’t resisting. The difficulty in this case is in getting a good result from that."
He said that the complexities of the Wyoming sites do not favor current technology and that they are more complex than those found in other regions of the country.
Reckmeyer said the Corps is responding to pressure to speed the process to best of its ability.
With approximately $225 million devoted to the cleanup of similarly designated and formerly used defense sites nationwide, high costs have slowed the project.
Water treatment efforts to speed the process would cost as much as $75 million at site No. 3 and more than $100 million at site No. 4, according to Reckmeyer.
In the meantime, he said, the Corps will continue its efforts to prevent exposure to the contamination by treating the area's groundwater.
At site No. 3, east of Cheyenne, Johnson is weighing his options.
“I can’t live another hundred years,” he said. “I’m 70 years old. I want to retire, and I want to get rid of this place. It’s a headache, and I’m stuck with it."
The frustration lives on as Johnson considers retirement and the sale of his machine shop.
“They just say it’s in the works,” Johnson said. “In the meantime, here I am. The taxes go on and the aggravation goes on."