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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
You can contact
* Bill Stephens, BP-Amoco,
* Vickie Meredith, Wyoming
Department of Environmental Quality,
* Linda Baker, Pollution Posse,