My Exchange With BP

A friend emailed me the response the BP press office hatched to my piece "Wake Up, BP" at: http://www.audubonmagazine.org/articles/conservation/wake-bp-and-restore-wyoming-s-soda-lake Dear Ms. Allen:

Thank you for your note concerning the article in the January-February Audubon magazine, entitled “Wake Up BP.”

In September, we provided the reporter, Ted Williams, with a substantive response to his questions regarding cessation of water pumping activities at Soda Lake, in Casper, WY. The printed article, however, did not contain any part of our response.

The article disputes, and, in several significant instances, misrepresents the facts regarding our decision not to re-construct a nearly 55-year old process water pipeline that meanders 4.7 miles from an area on the former refinery parcel to Soda Lake.

For those readers unfamiliar with Casper, in the years since the pipeline was constructed, northwest Casper has expanded with streets, several industrial parks and complexes, and parking lots built over the pipeline. Additionally, the State of Wyoming constructed an interstate highway (I-25) which crosses the pipeline in several locations. Any reconstruction of the pipeline would have to account for those changes and would entail engineering challenges, economic disruption and other costs that were not addressed in Mr. Williams’ article.

However, what we feel is most important for Audubon readers to understand is the long-term sustainability basis of our decision.

Soda Lake is not a natural self-sustaining lake, but rather a playa or “ephemeral” lake. Prior to construction of the pipeline, if rain and groundwater were sufficient – a small lake appeared, only to shrink if natural water sources were insufficient. The construction of the pipeline (ca.1956) changed this natural state. After the refinery shut down and until 2008, we continued to pump both remediated (clean, treated water) and also artificially diverted river water to maintain levels in Soda Lake. Treated, clean water is now returned to the North Platte River – recharging this resource and thus enhancing the source of the Casper drinking water supply, recreational use and riparian habitat.

Without the benefit of the facts, information, and context included in our response, Audubon readers never learned that:

• Acting under an Agreed Remedy Decision vetted with and supported by local and state-level stakeholders, BP is returning the basin to its pre-existing condition as a natural playa lake.
• BP made its decision after a thorough review and discussion with primary stakeholders including: the city of Casper, the City/County Joint Powers Board, the State, and US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as an Audubon Society representative. None of the official parties disputed the decision, and all agreed that allowing the area to return to its natural playa lake condition was the most sustainable, long-term option.
• Any repair or reconstruction of the Soda Lake pipeline would mean significant land disturbance, disruptions to highway traffic and existing businesses, and line replacement costs in the millions of dollars. The line would need to be maintained in perpetuity for Soda Lake to continue to exist.
• The available water rights are significant and are being assigned to the city of Casper and Natrona County, consistent with a 1998 agreement with those local government entities. This allows the local government entities, citizens and stakeholders in the greater Casper area to determine the most beneficial use of this valuable resource, and not BP.
• The article also overlooks the extensive remediation and enhancement work BP has conducted at the former Casper refinery as a whole, which is now home to a golf course, a light industrial park and a whitewater park. And the North Platte River is known for some of the best fly-fishing in the country.
• BP supports other wildlife projects in the area, including habitat improvement for pronghorn antelope, sage grouse, and other important species in the area. We welcome an open, constructive dialogue with The Audubon Society in this regard.
It is unfortunate that Audubon chose not to reflect the context, circumstances, and support for our decision in its article. We remain open to supporting efforts to further enhance the greater area of the former Casper Refinery property, and the Soda Lake uplands, as the basin is returned to its playa lake condition. Thank you for an opportunity to clarify the record.

Sincerely,

Maria Viso
Director – Public Affairs, BP Remediation Management

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I am disappointed, but not surprised, by BP’s response. I was hoping for something like: “Thanks for pointing this stuff out. We didn’t appreciate the importance of Soda Lake to North American birds. Since the expense is negligible for an enormous multi-national company such as ours we’ll honor our pledge and keep life-giving water flowing to this vital habitat.”

Ms. Viso states that BP provided me “with a substantive response to [my] questions regarding cessation of water pumping activities at Soda Lake.” It did not and has not. As I correctly reported in the piece: “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.”

On Friday Jan. 6, 2012 I was fishing on a remote pond in western Massachusetts when my cell phone rang. I thought it must be my wife asking if the ice was safe or if I had enough perch for dinner. Instead it was a BP flak complaining about “inaccuracies” in my piece which, like Ms. Viso, he was unable to cite. He asked me if I’d received an email explaining why BP had chosen to dry up Soda Lake. I had not. I gave him my correct email address, and the next day I received the alleged “substantive response.” It was nothing of the sort, differing little from what Ms. Viso has penned, equally inaccurate, and providing me with no information I had not dug up on my own.

Ms. Viso states that the Audubon Society “agreed” with the decision to wipe out hundreds of thousands of Central Flyway birds by allowing Soda Lake to “return to its natural condition”--i.e., a stagnant, toxic, ten-acre sump. This is an untruth. I would be interested to hear Ms. Viso’s documentation for her allegation that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife “agreed” with the decision to dry up Soda Lake. The Audubon Society closely followed and participated in the remediation process, but this is the first we have heard about this shocking news.

Evidently Ms. Viso believes that minor construction would somehow prevent fixing a possible leak in a pipe. DPWs across the nation could disabuse her of this misconception. Moreover, most of the land overlaying the pipeline is owned by the City of Casper for recreation (skeet/trap range, model airplane runway, stock-car race track); and the original tank-farm area now leased from BP by the Joint Powers Board for an industrial park is largely undeveloped. Much of the pipeline has been replaced as shown by the difference in its location on old maps and the ones in BP’s various reports dealing with the refinery remediation. BP doesn’t even know if there is a leak; it merely imagines there might be one.

Ms. Viso then simultaneously reveals that: 1. “Soda Lake is not a natural self-sustaining lake”; and 2. that she did not read as far as the third paragraph of my piece in which I report: “BP (formerly British Petroleum) created Soda Lake as a repository for refinery waste.”

From here Ms. Viso goes on to offer more compelling evidence that she didn’t read the piece by claiming that Audubon readers “never learned” facts I carefully reported. “BP,” she claims, repeating my central message, “is returning the basin to its pre-existing condition.” Yes, that’s the whole problem. She goes on to note, as I carefully reported, that BP is dumping its wastewater into the river instead of using it to keep Soda Lake and its birds alive. Then, because Ms. Viso is unaware that the intake area for Casper's water supply is at least 1/2 mile UPSTREAM from the diversion point for the pipeline to Soda Lake, she wrongly alleges that by dumping its wastewater into the river BP is “enhancing the source of the Casper drinking water supply.”

According to Ms. Viso, the piece “overlooks the extensive remediation and enhancement work BP has conducted at the former Casper refinery as a whole, which is now home to a golf course, a light industrial park and a whitewater park.” I direct her now to my copy, which she obviously missed:

“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.”

Finally, I am delighted to hear that BP now “welcomes an open, constructive dialogue with the Audubon Society”--a major improvement from 2011 when its staffers (outside the press office) were ignoring repeated phone calls from Audubon’s Editor-at-Large.

--Ted Williams, Editor-at-Large Audubon