How Small Towns Can Take Back Their Polluted Soils – A Case Study





The Laramie refinery site (images) is an excellent example of how land misuse, accumulated over decades or centuries, can limit land use for commercial use and agriculture. In the case of the refinery site, industrial pollution from operations oil refining and automotive repairs, in combination with more urban effects like dumping from oil changes, led to the land being relatively useless for any purpose.

One big limitation to soil reclamation for the refinery site is the lack of precipitation. Diverse plant communities are key to stabilizing a site, but lack of precipitation makes it hard to get plant populations to persist. A plant community may be coaxed into growing, stay for four or five years, then die off.

The refinery site, since being tested by the EPA and then purchased by the Laramie Rivers Conservation District, has been managed and cleaned up enough to be useful commercially.

Larry Munn is board chairperson and rural supervisor at the Laramie Rivers Conservation District, and a recently retired professor of soil science at the University of Wyoming. Amy interviewed Mr Munn to gain insights from his experience with soil reclamation and management. He has worked all over the US on reclaiming soil at mine sites, whether abandoned strip mines in Appalachia or run down sites here in urban Laramie, Wyoming.

The LRCD has been working with the EPA on reclamation efforts, funded through the EPA’s brownfields grant program.

Although the refinery site is clean for commercial uses, Mr Munn voiced concerns of hydrocarbons and heavy metal contamination making the soil unusable for agriculture, because of the risk of those contaminants making their way into the food system.

This concern is one mirrored in various operations and sites around the U.S.

The significant history of the site began in 1917 with the discovery of an oil deposit 10 miles south of Rock River. Ohio Oil staked out an area and decided to build the refinery in Laramie due to topography and railroad access. The company built a 6-foot pipe to toe refinery to pump oil 38 miles to the refinery, which opened a few years later in 1920.


(See all images here.)

The Laramie Boomerang called the refinery “Laramie’s Finest Industry”.

The refinery operated until 1932, and over the course of the next decade, all of the equipment was dismantled. In 1955 U.S. Yttrium leased the property, but the building was never finished. US Yttrium went bankrupt about a year later and the property was foreclosed upon in 1960. From 1960 to 1984 the property changed hands a lot and was used as junk yard, to store and maintain vehicles, was home to a logging company, an electrical company, and at least two different automotive repair companies. There was also a radio station and tower on the property. In 1984, the property was investigated by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, (WDEQ). A few months later, United States Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) took an interest and started taking samples. The results of the test show now radiation, but some heavy metal contamination.

Several decades later, possibly after some cleanup by Amoco, (historical data is sparse on this topic), in 2012 the Laramie Rivers Conservation District, (LRCD) took an interest in the site and bought the site where the refinery used to be.

The methods that the group decided to employ involved using a cover soil with high clay content to avoid water flow with contaminants out of the site. Parts of the site needed to be excavated to a depth of six feet and the soil brought to a hazardous waste disposal site. The LRCD also built a fence and removed debris from the property.

The refinery is a great example of how activity in a site varies and changes over time. In the case of the refinery, and as with many other sites, that resulted in an accumulation of pollutants and junk on the site.

Have a polluted site in your neighborhood? Contact your local conservation district.


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