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.

There was a sudden explosion of plants, invertebrates, and mammals (all of which could crawl under the fence). New, succulent vegetation brought in pronghorns. With the mass arrival of birds and small mammals came foxes, coyotes, badgers, and bobcats. "The amazing thing was that the water didn't kill birds," said Rea as we stood over the dike, now dry and rank with Russian olive. "The inlet basin was so awful the birds wouldn't go near it. I did find a dead pelican there once. By the time the water got into the main lake it was clean enough that I never saw any significant mortality."

The new Soda Lake provided a PR gold mine for Amoco. "Yant's puddle," as it came to be called, became national news. True magazine featured it in an eight-page piece entitled "A Sick River Is Returned to Nature." The Oil and Gas Journal gushed about how Amoco "is willing to match action to words in the industry's insistence that energy and the environment can live in harmony." And Amoco ran full-page ads in such publications as Scientific American and The Wall Street Journal under the heading of "A bird watcher's guide to Amoco's environmental efforts" and in which it accurately proclaimed that "biological management has turned a waste water pond into the state's most prolific habitat for birds and other wildlife."

Thanks in large measure to Amoco's leadership, the fishless North Platte River again started producing trout. But the earth and groundwater below and around the refinery held an estimated 10 million to 20 million gallons of oil that had leaked from pipes and tanks since 1912, and anglers complained that the trout tasted like oil. So in 1981 Amoco dug two eight-foot-diameter, state-of-the art wells to pump out and treat the contaminated groundwater.

After Amoco shut down the refinery in 1991 it continued to be a good neighbor, maintaining Soda Lake and its wildlife by pumping water straight from the river along with treated groundwater effluent.

 

But what had been brilliant, leading-edge environmental remediation in Buchler's and Yant's day didn't cut it in the 1990s. Now there was an Environmental Protection Agency and, by 1995, a "brownfields" law that mandated and partly funded cleanup and redevelopment of sites contaminated by such toxins as petroleum waste.

Amoco--the company that had, as it claimed, supplied "energy to help meet America's needs while preserving the environment"--now reverted to type, recalled Rea, fighting the regulators "every inch of the way."

In 1996 a group of citizens sued the company on grounds that its brownfields at the refinery site posed an "imminent and substantial endangerment" to human health and the environment. And in 1998 U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer ruled that the public had a right to expect a "concerted, honest cleanup effort from the company that benefited greatly from the community and its surrounding natural resources." The same year BP bought Amoco, acquiring its messes along with its assets.

Rea and his fellow activists realized that restoring the 4,000-acre former refinery site to the standards required by the EPA would take forever and do nothing for wildlife. So, organized as the Citizens Facilitation Initiative, they got the state legislature to enact a law that prohibited human habitation but allowed recreation. The Casper City Council and the Natrona County Commission appointed an Amoco Reuse Joint Powers Board to manage all properties save Soda Lake. 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.

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."

 

This all leads up to the question: Is BP telling the truth when it says it cares about wildlife and the natural world? Surprisingly, the answer isn't a definite "no." It's more like, "sometimes, depending on who's calling the shots." Browne and Deschamp proved that. Beginning in 2000 BP spent $200 million on its "Beyond Petroleum" PR effort, in which it pledged a commitment to solar energy, replaced its 70-year-old shield logo with the Helios (the Greek sun god) sunburst logo, and attempted to rebrand itself as a friend to the environment. In some ways BP lived up to the new image. It introduced a low-sulfur gasoline in 2001, it invested $110 million in clean-gasoline facilities, and it became the world's largest producer of solar energy.

That's not to say that BP, like all energy companies, doesn't shower in greenwash. During the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010 it spent $93 million on its "Make it Right Campaign"--an attempt to convince the world that it had an environmental conscience. It flooded the media with images of cleanup crews and rehabilitated birds and turtles. Finally, it dismissed its CEO, Tony Hayward, whose foot left little room for his tongue when he addressed the public and who might have made an effective scapegoat had he not been such an obvious liability. The whole effort backfired spectacularly, and at this writing America appears unconvinced that BP is anything but a greedy, reckless, and utterly typical extractive industry.

As things stand now, Soda Lake is becoming a toxic brew. The Fish and Wildlife Service's Pete Ramirez explains that birds entering saline ponds can die when salt crystals on their feathers reduce buoyancy or cause hypothermia. And when they drink or preen, salt can poison them by damaging nerves to the point that their heads droop into the water and they drown. If significant mortality is documented because of what BP has done or isn't doing, it could face criminal prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The company has made enormous investments for birds at Soda Lake, and everything is in place for productive habitat and a world-class wildlife education center. All BP has to do to honor its pledge to keep Soda Lake alive is add a little water to the drying, increasingly toxic lake bed. The water doesn't even have to come from the river or the groundwater under the refinery; it could come from wells and/or from the treated effluent of a nearby housing development.

So why would BP choose to reinforce the villain image it acquired in the Gulf of Mexico instead of resurrecting and promoting the hero image Browne and Deschamp had given it? The answer may be that the company is so huge that major decision makers don't know about the rich PR opportunity being squandered in Casper. Even Stilwell, now deputy operations manager for U.S. assets, expressed surprise when I informed him of Soda Lake's importance to birds.

"When BP had staff in Casper those folks were involved in the community," remarks Andrea Orabona, nongame bird biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "They could go out there and see the public benefits of Soda Lake. Now there's just no ownership. All the work--to create the nesting islands, to shore them up, to dig trenches around them, to dig out the contaminated soil--has gone by the wayside. The islands aren't even islands anymore. The birds are completely vulnerable to predation. This is such an important breeding site for water birds and shorebirds. Restoring Soda Lake is a great opportunity for BP. For a company this size the cost is a drop in the bucket. They have a huge black eye, and we feel they could really use this to their advantage."

"How come they let us in?" I'd asked Bart Rea when he unlocked the sagging gate on one of the access roads to Soda Lake.

"This goes way back to the good old days, when we were all friends," he replied. "We got keys to the gate, and whenever BP changed the locks they'd give us new keys. Now nobody gives a damn, so we just use the old keys to the old locks."

But Soda Lake and its ecosystem can be renewed as easily as the locks, keys, gates, and friendships. BP is fast approaching a crossroads. If it continues in the direction it's headed, it will reaffirm what the public and media have been saying about it since April 2010. If it deviates in the right direction, it can shake part of that image and win back some of its lost hero status. n

 

What You Can Do

Write BP, urging it to make good on its pledge to save Soda Lake and its wildlife. Enclose a copy of this article or attach a link. The address is BP America Press Office, 501 Westlake Park Blvd., Houston TX 77079-2604. The email address is uspress@bp.com.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine