Wyoming regulators gamble on Amoco cleanup

  • The defunct Amoco oil refinery in Casper, Wyo.

    Richard Alan Hannon photo

CASPER, Wyo. - Clad from head to toe in sterile white clothing, environmental engineers have become a familiar sight in this central Wyoming city of 51,000.

They come to clean up the defunct Amoco Corp. oil refinery, one of the state's oldest, and one of its most notorious, hazardous-waste sites. During its boom years in the 1970s, this refinery sent millions of gallons of gasoline to Denver each month; at times, it employed more than 400 Casperites. A dwindling crude oil supply led Amoco to close the plant in 1991, leaving the town with fouled groundwater and polluted soil.

Despite prodding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the cleanup has been slow. In mid-1997, six years after the closure, legal battles between the agency and the company remained unresolved.

The controversy got even more complicated last fall, when 11 Casper property owners filed a federal citizens' lawsuit. They claimed that groundwater pollution by the refinery had reduced their property values to little or nothing.

At first, the case looked good for the Casper citizens. The federal judge accused Amoco, now BP-Amoco, of crafting "a pervasive corporate strategy of delay, deter and deceive."

But rising legal costs led the plaintiffs to abandon the case. Instead, they chose to sit down at the bargaining table with Amoco and the state and federal environmental agencies.

After three months of meetings, the Casper property owners' claims were settled for $5.5 million. The participants also agreed to an experiment: The EPA would give the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality oversight responsibility for the stalled cleanup, keeping enforcement closer to home.

Department of Environmental Quality division head Dave Finley says the transfer will eliminate the inefficiencies that have plagued the project - without weakening the cleanup standards established by the federal agency.

"We are not going to compromise environmental protection or public health just to get redevelopment at the site," he said. "We are acutely aware that we cannot be perceived to be being driven by Amoco's agenda."

But critics fear that the state agency and its cash-strapped, two-person cleanup team will not be able to stand up to pressure from Amoco and its supporters. Linda Baker, head of a Casper citizens' group called the Pollution Posse, says the collaborative cleanup approach will allow the company to bend the rules.

"It's an outrage," she says, "and a slap in the face of the citizens who think the (Department of Environmental Quality) is there to protect them."

Amoco stockholders and former employees are plentiful in Casper, and many of them argue that the state and federal agencies are browbeating the company. Amoco has other powerful sympathizers, too: A bill in the state Legislature would amend state statutes to allow for lower cleanup standards.

Officials from the city of Casper and Natrona County also want to give Amoco a break. They're supporting an Amoco plan for $60 million worth of improvements at the refinery, a proposal that would transform the site into a commercial, recreational and industrial complex - but also allow the cleanup to fall short of residential standards.

City Manager Tom Forslund says the city decided to cooperate with Amoco because they feared a lawsuit would mark Casper as an unfriendly place to do business.

"We felt that discussion and compromise is the better route," Forslund says. "The city government's more interested in getting that land put back into some type of productive use."

As the controversy continues, the cost of the negotiations is mounting. Amoco has not delivered on its pledge to contribute $2 million, leaving Gov. Jim Geringer to request $400,000 in oversight expenses from the Wyoming legislature.

Meanwhile, the earth-moving continues along Casper's Poplar Street. The state agency has ordered Amoco to install a barrier wall at the site this summer.

But many point out that the wall is only designed to halt the spread of pollution. At the end of 1999, say observers on all sides of the controversy, the cleanup itself may still be in the planning stages. The final resolution of Amoco's industrial legacy may be decades away.

Jason Marsden covers energy and the environment for the Casper Star-Tribune.

You can contact ...

* Bill Stephens, BP-Amoco, 307/261-4212;

* Vickie Meredith, Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, 307/332-6924;

* Linda Baker, Pollution Posse, 307/234-4754.