Wake up, BP, and Restore Wyoming’s Soda Lake

Michael Lundgren
Michael Lundgren
Michael Lundgren

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.

By Ted Williams/ Photography by Michael Lundgren
Published: January-February 2012

Wind-driven snow stung our faces and blurred our vision last April when geologist and Audubon Wyoming board member Bart Rea guided me around Soda Lake, just north of Casper, Wyoming. "There's our eagle," he declared, pointing at the fuzzy silhouette of a raptor perched on a fence post. The previous afternoon we'd seen a golden sculling around the desiccated lake with slow, powerful wing beats that blew frightened California gulls and cormorants into the air like thistle down and coal ash.

But as we watched through binoculars our "eagle" preened and, to our delight, transformed into a peregrine falcon.

BP (formerly British Petroleum) created Soda Lake as a repository for refinery waste, and it owns about 2,200 acres of grassland that surrounds it. The lake became one of those happy accidents whereby an environmentally damaging commercial enterprise (such as Nebraska's fencerow-to-fencerow plowers who sustain sandhill cranes with waste grain) partly compensates for its destruction of natural habitat. When the main lake was at full 667-acre capacity it had been one of the most important waterfowl, wading bird, and shorebird habitats in the Central Flyway, sustaining many species that aren't much seen elsewhere in Wyoming, such as western sandpipers, snowy egrets, ring-billed gulls, white-faced ibis, black-crowned night-herons, lesser scaup, gadwalls, northern pintails, redheads, canvasbacks, American white pelicans, and Caspian terns (all on Audubon's WatchList).

Soda Lake, an increasingly birdless Audubon Important Bird Area, had national importance to migratory species because it was situated on the western fringe of the Central Flyway--an area with scant water suitable for stopovers because so many other Central Flyway ponds have been drained or filled for crop production. Currently the lake covers fewer than 200 acres, and it's shrinking fast. We walked to the islands created by BP to protect nesting birds. Now, easily accessible to skunks, foxes, and coyotes, they were littered with bird bones. Since 2008, when BP decided to economize by shutting off the pumps that maintained Soda Lake, the increasing saline content has been wiping out the plants and invertebrates the birds depend on and, in the process, creating a toxic, predator-infested death trap for species that wade or swim. The Caspian tern nesting colony has been wiped out.

Even if you live in Wyoming you probably haven't heard about the bizarre history of Soda Lake or the dual personality of BP. You may be surprised to learn that at times the company has been a champion of wildlife. If the bureaucrats far removed from their Casper, Wyoming, properties and the realities of the natural world are awakened in time, BP can make a major contribution to bird conservation, for an estimated cost of just $100,000 annually, and shed some of the image it acquired when it trashed the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

 

The story of Soda Lake's birth and demise begins in 1912 at a site in Casper where Midwest Oil and Franco Petroleum started refining the oil that had been discovered four years earlier in central Wyoming. From then until well into the second half of the century, waste products from oil refining here and elsewhere were routinely dumped into water. In Casper the repository was the North Platte River, which was soon rendered unfit even for carp.

In 1948 Congress imposed modest clean-water standards, and to maintain the momentum, Wyoming hatched a Pollution Control Advisory Council, to which it appointed C.C. "Doc" Buchler, manager of the refinery (at this point owned by American Oil Co.). But Buchler turned out to be one fox that not only guarded the henhouse but cleaned it up in the process. Instead of dumping partially treated effluent into the river, he decided that his refinery was going to set a national example by dumping none at all--and damn the expense. "He never had a bit of sympathy for other industries," Art Williamson, then director of the state's new Division of Environmental Sanitation, told True magazine in 1966. "They'd come in and say, 'This is going to cost us to beat hell,' and he'd answer, 'I know what it's costing; I spent a million and a half bucks on it.' "

Buchler assigned the pollution-control job to his chief engineer, Joe Yant, a wildlife advocate and member of the Wyoming Audubon Society (which later became the Murie Audubon Society). Yant found a naturally sealed disposal area almost five miles north of the refinery--a big depression underlain by impervious shale. At the lowest point there was a tiny ephemeral pond called Old Soda Lake, because of its high alkali content. Yant designed a main lake of 667 acres and a connected 45-acre settling pond (inlet basin). American Oil (Amoco) bought 2,200 acres of surrounding upland, enclosed it with eight miles of heavy fence, ran a 4.7-mile, 12-inch steel pipe to the inlet basin, and started pumping effluent into it in June 1957.

The nasty stuff settled out in the inlet basin like coffee grounds in a mug, and the clean water on top flowed through a dike, via an overflow drain, into the main lake. The results were stunning. Soda Lake's alkali content went from 20,000 parts per million to a drinkable (at least for wildlife) 7,000. So well had Yant designed the system that evaporation from the main lake equaled input from the refinery, and the water level remained stable.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

soda lake

BP's responses to the concern expressed by Ted Williams article “Wake Up, BP” and many other readers is so typical of the big conglomerate companies justifying their actions or inaction's. It shows in other projects throughout the country; ie, 'Gasland' the documentary on fracking throughout Wyoming, Montana and many other states. It seems as though money is the lord of the multi-national companies, which give way to lies and twisted truths . . . it is heartless and contrary to the natural order of life. If anyone tries to come out of the mire and report 'truth' they are shoved down in an their effort to keep their voices silent.
We have to be thankful of the internet, which is a wonderful way to voice our concerns and outrage. We collectively realize we are not alone in our frustrations.
So . . . let OUR voices be heard LOUD and CLEAR continually. If we 'beat' upon the door it will gradually weaken and break down.
Keep up the good work Audubon!!

Soda Lake and BP response

Ms. Viso,
I know you're just an employee of this megalopolis called BP, and you're going to spin what ever the management instructs. But pass on this message to your management superiors: Environmental advocates will continue to have a powerful lobby and voice, and one day, in the not so distant future, your company will suffer if you do not follow through on the concerns of Soda Lake, and other places like it in a world that have suffered through poor management decisions by your company.
The winds of change are blowing through this country, and a day of reckoning is coming. One day, we with environmental concerns will have the majority votes in Congress. We will not forget those who were not cooperative with our concerns, and who had the ability to affect a positive change in our world, and yet did nothing.

response to BP on Soda Lake

I received the same response from BP that is listed above and I responded:

Ms. Viso,
I know you're just an employee of this megalopolis called BP, and you're going to spin what ever the management instructs. But pass on this message to your management superiors: Environmental advocates will continue to have a powerful lobby and voice, and one day, in the not so distant future, your company will suffer if you do not follow through on the concerns of Soda Lake, and other places like it in a world that have suffered through poor management decisions by your company.
The winds of change are blowing through this country, and a day of reckoning is coming. One day, we with environmental concerns will have the majority votes in Congress. We will not forget those who were not cooperative with our concerns, and who had the ability to affect a positive change in our world, and yet did nothing.

Wake Up BP

Isn't this an issue of "water rights"? The clue is in BP's reply below:

· The available water rights are significant and are being assigned to the city of Casper and Natrona County, consistent with a 1998 agreement with those local government entities. This allows the local government entities, citizens and stakeholders in the greater Casper area to determine the most beneficial use of this valuable resource, and not BP.

If so, shouldn't Audubon be lobbying the "local government entities" concerned to grant BP sufficient water to flood Soda Lake? It's not clear that the supposedly defective pipeline has anything to do with the decision. The statement, here, that "BP may also use some of the treated groundwater to irrigate the golf course" suggests where the priorities of these "entities" may lie!

The following comments were made by a friend after having done a bit of research.

PS: the attached file, REMEDY DECISION FOR THE FORMER BP CASPER REFINERY
SODA LAKE AREA, from Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, lays out the background and, in pp56-61, sets out BP's obligations and "describes the selected remedy for the Inlet Basin sediments impacted by refinery operations" that required lowering the water level. Subsequent restoration of the water level does not appear to be mandated without agreement from all parties, hence BP's response quoted above.

RD3final011002.pdf

Water Rights

Thanks Von Peacock:
BP can’t pass this off as a water-rights issue. It controls the water rights. And it promised publicly to keep life-giving water flowing to Soda Lake. It even made an enormous investment in making the land around Soda Lake into a wildlife-viewing area--making trails, roads, nesting islands, nesting platforms, etc. Then it reneged and just walked away. As Bart Rea aptly put it and as I quoted in the piece: “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.” The City of Casper doesn’t benefit from the discharge into the river because its intake pipe is far upstream from BP’s discharge. As for downstream users, the amount of water needed to maintain Soda Lake is inconsequential. The remnant lake is increasingly toxic, and soon it will be killing birds. When that happens BP could face criminal prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

BP's Response

I am disappointed, but not surprised, by BP’s response. I was hoping for something like: “Thanks for pointing this stuff out. We didn’t appreciate the importance of Soda Lake to North American birds. Since the expense is negligible for an enormous multi-national company such as ours we’ll honor our pledge and keep life-giving water flowing to this vital habitat.”

Ms. Viso states that BP provided me “with a substantive response to [my] questions regarding cessation of water pumping activities at Soda Lake.” It did not and has not. As I correctly reported in the piece: “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.”

On Friday Jan. 6, 2012 I was fishing on a remote pond in western Massachusetts when my cell phone rang. I thought it must be my wife asking if the ice was safe or if I had enough perch for dinner. Instead it was a BP flak complaining about “inaccuracies” in my piece which, like Ms. Viso, he was unable to cite. He asked me if I’d received an email explaining why BP had chosen to dry up Soda Lake. I had not. I gave him my correct email address, and the next day I received the alleged “substantive response.” It was nothing of the sort, differing little from what Ms. Viso has penned, equally inaccurate, and providing me with no information I had not dug up on my own.

Ms. Viso states that the Audubon Society “agreed” with the decision to wipe out hundreds of thousands of Central Flyway birds by allowing Soda Lake to “return to its natural condition”--i.e., a stagnant, toxic, ten-acre sump. This is an untruth. I would be interested to hear Ms. Viso’s documentation for her allegation that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife “agreed” with the decision to dry up Soda Lake. The Audubon Society closely followed and participated in the remediation process, but this is the first we have heard about this shocking news.

Evidently Ms. Viso believes that minor construction would somehow prevent fixing a possible leak in a pipe. DPWs across the nation could disabuse her of this misconception. Moreover, most of the land overlaying the pipeline is owned by the City of Casper for recreation (skeet/trap range, model airplane runway, stock-car race track); and the original tank-farm area now leased from BP by the Joint Powers Board for an industrial park is largely undeveloped. Much of the pipeline has been replaced as shown by the difference in its location on old maps and the ones in BP’s various reports dealing with the refinery remediation. BP doesn’t even know if there is a leak; it merely imagines there might be one.

Ms. Viso then simultaneously reveals that: 1. “Soda Lake is not a natural self-sustaining lake”; and 2. that she did not read as far as the third paragraph of my piece in which I report: “BP (formerly British Petroleum) created Soda Lake as a repository for refinery waste.”

From here Ms. Viso goes on to offer more compelling evidence that she didn’t read the piece by claiming that Audubon readers “never learned” facts I carefully reported. “BP,” she claims, repeating my central message, “is returning the basin to its pre-existing condition.” Yes, that’s the whole problem. She goes on to note, as I carefully reported, that BP is dumping its wastewater into the river instead of using it to keep Soda Lake and its birds alive. Then, because Ms. Viso is unaware that the intake area for Casper's water supply is at least 1/2 mile UPSTREAM from the diversion point for the pipeline to Soda Lake, she wrongly alleges that by dumping its wastewater into the river BP is “enhancing the source of the Casper drinking water supply.”

According to Ms. Viso, the piece “overlooks the extensive remediation and enhancement work BP has conducted at the former Casper refinery as a whole, which is now home to a golf course, a light industrial park and a whitewater park.” I direct her now to my copy, which she obviously missed:

“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.”

Finally, I am delighted to hear that BP now “welcomes an open, constructive dialogue with the Audubon Society”--a major improvement from 2011 when its staffers (outside the press office) were ignoring repeated phone calls from Audubon’s Editor-at-Large.

Restoration of Soda Lake

After reading Mr William's article I wrote as recommended to BP and received the following to which I would enjoy Mr Williams response.
January 12, 2012

Dear Mr. Owens:

Thank you for your note concerning the article in the January-February Audubon magazine, entitled “Wake Up BP.”

In September, we provided the reporter, Ted Williams, with a substantive response to his questions regarding cessation of water pumping activities at Soda Lake, in Casper, WY. The printed article, however, did not contain any part of our response.

The article disputes, and, in several significant instances, misrepresents the facts regarding our decision not to re-construct a nearly 55-year old process water pipeline that meanders 4.7 miles from an area on the former refinery parcel to Soda Lake.

For those readers unfamiliar with Casper, in the years since the pipeline was constructed, northwest Casper has expanded with streets, several industrial parks and complexes, and parking lots built over the pipeline. Additionally, the State of Wyoming constructed an interstate highway (I-25) which crosses the pipeline in several locations. Any reconstruction of the pipeline would have to account for those changes and would entail engineering challenges, economic disruption and other costs that were not addressed in Mr. Williams’ article.

However, what we feel is most important for Audubon readers to understand is the long-term sustainability basis of our decision.

Soda Lake is not a natural self-sustaining lake, but rather a playa or “ephemeral” lake. Prior to construction of the pipeline, if rain and groundwater were sufficient – a small lake appeared, only to shrink if natural water sources were insufficient. The construction of the pipeline (ca.1956) changed this natural state. After the refinery shut down and until 2008, we continued to pump both remediated (clean, treated water) and also artificially diverted river water to maintain levels in Soda Lake. Treated, clean water is now returned to the North Platte River – recharging this resource and thus enhancing the source of the Casper drinking water supply, recreational use and riparian habitat.

Without the benefit of the facts, information, and context included in our response, Audubon readers never learned that:

• Acting under an Agreed Remedy Decision vetted with and supported by local and state-level stakeholders, BP is returning the basin to its pre-existing condition as a natural playa lake.
• BP made its decision after a thorough review and discussion with primary stakeholders including: the city of Casper, the City/County Joint Powers Board, the State, and US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as an Audubon Society representative. None of the official parties disputed the decision, and all agreed that allowing the area to return to its natural playa lake condition was the most sustainable, long-term option.
• Any repair or reconstruction of the Soda Lake pipeline would mean significant land disturbance, disruptions to highway traffic and existing businesses, and line replacement costs in the millions of dollars. The line would need to be maintained in perpetuity for Soda Lake to continue to exist.
• The available water rights are significant and are being assigned to the city of Casper and Natrona County, consistent with a 1998 agreement with those local government entities. This allows the local government entities, citizens and stakeholders in the greater Casper area to determine the most beneficial use of this valuable resource, and not BP.
• The article also overlooks the extensive remediation and enhancement work BP has conducted at the former Casper refinery as a whole, which is now home to a golf course, a light industrial park and a whitewater park. And the North Platte River is known for some of the best fly-fishing in the country.
• BP supports other wildlife projects in the area, including habitat improvement for pronghorn antelope, sage grouse, and other important species in the area. We welcome an open, constructive dialogue with The Audubon Society in this regard.
It is unfortunate that Audubon chose not to reflect the context, circumstances, and support for our decision in its article. We remain open to supporting efforts to further enhance the greater area of the former Casper Refinery property, and the Soda Lake uplands, as the basin is returned to its playa lake condition. Thank you for an opportunity to clarify the record.

Sincerely,

Maria Viso
Director – Public Affairs, BP Remediation Management

soda lake

Urging it to make good on its pledge to save soda lake and its wildlife.

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