Toxic Legacy: Brownfields Cleanup in Wyoming

In December of 2011, the EPA completed a Targeted Brownfields Assessment on the former Yttrium Plant in Laramie, which is being rehabilitated by the Laramie River Conservation District. The assessment revealed the presence of petroleum products and lead in both soil and groundwater, and concluded that the contamination was at manageable levels that would allow cleanup. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

A collaborative investigation spearheaded by the Investigative News Network revealed that abandoned and polluted properties — known as “brownfields” — continue to mar communities across the United States. INN and their partner organizations evaluate the slow progress being made in the cleanup of brownfields nationwide. WyoFile contributor Gregory Nickerson took a look at cleanup efforts underway in Wyoming.

By Gregory Nickerson

No one has made an accurate count of the number of contaminated sites across the state of Wyoming, according to Vicki Meredith, program supervisor for the Voluntary Remediation Program at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

“I really couldn’t guess how many contaminated sites there are across the state. If you stop to think about all the potential, it would be thousands of sites across Wyoming,” said Meredith.

The Laramie River Conservation District recently entered the blighted Yttrium Plant property into Department of Environmental Quality’s Voluntary Remediation Program. It plans to improve the neighborhood by completing the cleanup and building new offices on the site. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Those polluted sites are the legacy of oil wells, pipeline spills, leaky underground storage tanks, refineries, junkyards, dry cleaners, and numerous other chemical installations.

While there are many polluted sites across the state, only a select few are considered brownfields by the DEQ and the EPA. Typically, brownfields are sites within populated or inhabited areas where contamination poses a barrier to continued use of a property.

Dan Heffernan, EPA Region 8 Brownfields Coordinator, says it is communities, not the EPA, that self-identify brownfields. “It’s the local community that identifies something as a blight or potential contamination site, as opposed to a Superfund site that is designated by the EPA,” he said.

The EPA Region 8 office in Denver has three separate programs for addressing brownfields:

  • In the Targeted Brownfields Assessment program, EPA scientists come out to a site at the request of the owner to evaluate the level of contamination.
  • With a Brownfields Assistance grant, the EPA provides funds for entities to hire their own environmental consultants to test contamination.
  • EPA Cleanup Grants provide money for the actual cleanup work.

The Laramie River Conservation District recently benefited from a Targeted Brownfields Assessment where the EPA drilled holes to test soils at the former Yttrium Plant, the abandoned site of an oil refinery and radioactive materials processor. The assessment identified manageable amounts of petroleum and lead in the soils, which allowed the Laramie River Conservation District to enter DEQ’s Voluntary Remediation Program and apply for EPA Cleanup grants. The Conservation District plans to locate their new office on the brownfield site.

Since the late 1990s about a dozen sites around the state have received Brownfields Assistance from the EPA. These range from the Union Pacific Roundhouse in Evanston, to a landfill in Wamsutter, a leaky oil storage tank by Little Goose Creek in Sheridan, Romero Park in Cheyenne, an old refinery in Lovell, and an industrial property in Upton, among others. In May of 2011 Cheyenne received a million dollar EPA grant to do a community-wide assessment of brownfields properties. A full listing of EPA-supported cleanups in Wyoming is available at the EPA’s Cleanups in my Community page.

In the past two years the EPA has awarded Brownfields Cleanup Grants to communities in Wyoming. In 2010 the Old Stony school in Sundance received $200,000 to remove asbestos, with the goal of turning the building into a museum. This year Dubois received a $200,000 EPA Brownfields Cleanup Grant to remediate an old sawmill with petroleum-contaminated soils.

That Dubois and Sundance could be selected from a nationwide pool of applicants demonstrates EPA’s confidence that the communities would be able to complete their proposed projects, Heffernan said.

Only about 30 percent of EPA Cleanup grant applicants get selected for funding. Small towns like Sundance or Dubois compete against cities like Cleveland and Detroit for funds.

But what the small towns lack in size and resources, they make up in having broad-based community participation and buy in, Heffernan said. “A lot of that credit (for Wyoming towns receiving the EPA grants) goes to the state DEQ for providing technical assistance to small local governments and efforts,” he added.

Much of the cleanup work that happens in Wyoming happens through the state DEQ’s Voluntary Remediation Program (VRP), which supplies communities and businesses with a step-by-step cleanup process. Once an entity volunteers for the program, the DEQ provides grants of up to $200,000 for assessment and $200,000 for cleanup.

Once DEQ certifies a VRP cleanup to be complete, it awards the entity a document of liability assurance that prevents future owners or neighbors from holding the entity liable. Many entities, from gas stations to fast food restaurants seek these certificates in order to put their properties on the market.

There are currently about 90 properties in the DEQ’s Voluntary Remediation Program, with new entities applying every week. Several notable VRP sites include Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, National Guard Armories around the state, the former Conoco Refinery in Glenrock, the refinery in Sinclair, Union Pacific Railroad facilities in Cheyenne and Green river, and a multitude of Colorado Interstate Gas pipeline sites.  A complete list of VRP projects across Wyoming is available here.

The Yttrium Plant brownfield site in Laramie was used as a petroleum refinery from 1921-1932 and a radioactive material processing plant from 1956-1962. Contamination on the property left it vacant for decades, making it a target for vandalism. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The Wind River Reservation has made an inventory of brownfield sites, which includes old oil fields, abandoned power plants and refineries, sewage lagoons, scrap yards, and a variety of vacant government buildings. A full list is available here.

Compared to EPA grant programs, Meredith said getting support from the VRP program is, “Not hard at all.” It’s as simple as going to the DEQ website and filling out a form asking for assistance.

Taken together, Meredith said the total amount spent in Wyoming for EPA/DEQ Brownfield projects, EPA Superfund projects, and private cleanups amounts to tens of millions of dollars.

Wyoming’s notable Superfund sites include the Laramie Tie Treatment Plant, FE Warren Air Force Base, and the Brookhurst Subdivision, which abutted oil and gas facilities operated by Kinder Morgan, Dow Chemical, and Schlumberger. Such sites differ from brownfields in that Superfund sites are identified by EPA as posing an immediate threat to human health, which triggers regulatory programs and a flow of cleanup funds.

Some of Wyoming’s biggest cleanup projects were funded privately. Meredith said an example is the $60 million remediation of the Amoco/BP refinery property in Casper. That project cleaned up 1,000 acres through a collaborative process involving DEQ, EPA, the city and Natrona County, with all the funds provided by BP.

Meredith couldn’t venture a guess as to how much more money would be needed to clean up all of Wyoming’s contaminated sites. “If you think about that it cost $60 million to clean up the former Amoco refinery in Casper, if you broke that down by acre, $60 million for 1,000 acres, it would be a lot of money,” she said.

A significant barrier to a statewide cleanup is that many of Wyoming’s contaminated sites are in rural areas. That means there is less motivation to clean them up because the pollution is not impacting people. “The desire to clean up is less if it’s in the middle of nowhere versus the middle of town, and a lot of those sites are out in the middle of nowhere,” Meredith said.

EPA Funded Brownfields Assessment andAssistance Sites in Wyoming

  • David Romero Park, Cheyenne
  • Cheyenne Progress Center Industrial Park
  • Yttrium Plant, Laramie
  • Wamsutter Landfill
  • Union Center, Evanston
  • City of Evanston Roundhouse
  • Old Wind River Game and Fish Building
  • Old Wind River High School
  • Eastern Shoshone Museum and Cultural Center
  • Old Lovell Refinery
  • Former ANCAR Tank Site, Sheridan
  • Upton Regional Industrial Property

EPA Funded Brownfields Cleanups in Wyoming

  • Old Stony Building, Sundance
  • Former Dubois Sawmill Site

EPA Superfund Sites in Wyoming:

  • F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Cheyenne
  • Mystery Bridge/Brookhurst Subdivision, Natrona County
  • Union Pacific Tie Treatment Plant, Laramie

VRP Site List


— Gregory Nickerson is a University of Wyoming-trained historian and writer from Big Horn.  He has worked on documentary films in Nicaragua, Yellowstone, and Philadelphia, and held jobs as a museum curator and hunting guide.

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Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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  1. Thank You EPA & DEQ for protecting and investing in our enviroment. Not just for now, but for future generations! GO GET’EM