CHEYENNE – There is still a long, expensive road ahead in cleaning up Cold War-era missile sites in Wyoming.
Those with the most significant environmental effects, the seven former Atlas Missile sites, are located in southeast Wyoming, all within 75 miles of Cheyenne. While the federal government has already spent more than $45 million on cleanup actions associated with the old nuclear missile launch sites in Wyoming, Kevin Frederick, water administrator for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, told a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday that the work is far from over.
The estimated cost of that work could be as high as $285 million from the Army Corps of Engineers, he said.
“We have groundwater remediation at two of the missile sites now, but we still have a long way to go on the remaining five,” Frederick said. “And it’s going to take some time before we know whether the groundwater remediation efforts are going to be successful or not.”
The Atlas Missile sites held and prepared to launch nuclear missiles during the Cold War era of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Trichloroethylene, or TCE – a known carcinogen – was used at the missile sites for cleaning components and preventing accidental explosions.
This resulted in the release of potentially thousands of gallons of the chemical at any given site, causing groundwater contamination.
During his testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, chaired by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Frederick was asked whether it was true a lack of consensus exists between the Wyoming DEQ and Army Corps. He said the Army Corps proposed no further action at Missile Site 7, located in Pine Bluffs – a conclusion the DEQ is questioning.
“There are some questions we have that deal with the technical interpretations made by the Corps with respect to what’s going on at that particular missile site,” Frederick said during Wednesday’s hearing.
Frederick told the committee the site has geologic formation features, referred to as piping, which contain groundwater. Piping, he said, is more than likely the result of animals burrowing or wormholes, and can affect how groundwater travels.
“It’s a fairly unique situation,” Frederick told the committee. “In that type of condition, groundwater really behaves a little bit different than you’d see it behave in a sand, gravel aquifer with porous flow. Piping essentially directs where groundwater is going to go; thus, any contamination with it, as well.”
Testing by the Corps found TCE in areas where experts would otherwise not have expected to, possibly because of the geological features, Frederick said.
“We’ve asked the Corps to help us understand why we’re seeing (TCE) up there,” he said Wednesday. “If we’re seeing it up there, why are we seeing it up there, and where else should we be looking?”
Lt. General Todd Semonite, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commanding General and chief of engineers, said the decision to close the site in September 2014 came after eight rounds of sampling found contaminant levels below the minimum level of concern. But he said the Corps wasn’t closing the door on further investigations.
“We certainly want to do that so we can reach a resolution,” Semonite said. “I think, bottom line, these are all not simple, cookie-cutter solutions. We’ve got to take the best science out there with the best authorities, see what Mr. Frederick’s concerns are and try to find a consensus.”
Barrasso has long been pursuing an agenda of asking the Corps to do more in cleaning up the Atlas Missile sites.
“Sen. Barrasso was instrumental in making sure that the city of Cheyenne water supply was treated to eliminate any concerns with TCE,” Frederick said.
During his opening remarks Wednesday, Barrasso said he continues to hear concerns from constituents about “the attitude of regional Corps officials on the ground.”
“Each time communities and impacted stakeholders try to engage with the Corps on these issues, they have historically been met with an unhelpful attitude,” he said.
Semonite rejected the claim that Army Corps personnel were unresponsive to concerns or wanted a “quick fix” at Atlas Missile sites.
“I have 34,000 engineers, and I would put mine up against some of the best in the world,” he said Wednesday. “Not just because of technical competency, but because of compassion to do the right thing for this nation. So, if I ever find somebody who I think is unhealthy, please notify me personally. The only reason we should not be able to do something is a lack of resources, or for some reason, we’re technically challenged. But it’s not because of an attitude, and I’ll certainly rectify that if that’s out there.”
Drew Reckmeyer, section chief with the Corps’ Environmental Remediation Branch, said the Corps was in the process of meeting with the Wyoming DEQ to reach a consensus on Site 7. He also echoed Semonite’s statement about the Corps doing what’s best for communities affected by former missile sites.
“We’ve had meetings with (Wyoming DEQ) about protecting the public, making sure that there’s no consumption of contaminated water. That is of high importance and a priority for us,” Reckmeyer said.
The most significant contamination in southeast Wyoming came from Missile Site 4, located about 18 miles west of Cheyenne on the Belvoir Ranch. A plume from that site is roughly 12 miles long and 3 miles wide, with concentrations of TCE in groundwater greater than 48,000 times the legal limit. This necessitated a water treatment system for municipal systems in the city of Cheyenne and granulated-activated carbon systems for private wells that were put in place by the Corps because of TCE contamination.
Kathleen Quinn is a community representative on the Restoration Advisory Board, a Department of Defense-sponsored board designed to address community concerns regarding corrective action at Missile Site 4. In her two years working with Corps officials on the board, Quinn said she hasn’t had the same perceptions as Barrasso’s concerned constituents.
“(Corps officials) are very concerned,” she said. “They are skilled professionals, this is their chosen profession, and they feel very strongly about clean water.”
Whatever disagreements might exist about the conduct of the Army Corps in addressing the Atlas Missile sites, everyone can agree funding from the Department of Defense is a critical factor.
“What we really need is continued funding,” Quinn said.
When asked if he thought federal funding for Atlas Missile site cleanup had been adequate up to now, Frederick said, “If more funding were available, we would be able to make more progress more quickly in cleaning these sites up.”
A lack of adequate funding going forward would only result in more complicated, expensive cleanup efforts at the Atlas Missile sites, Frederick said.
“The consequences are that TCE will continue to leach into groundwater,” he said. “The TCE contaminant plumes will likely continue to expand, and over time, remedies to clean up the TCE will become more expensive.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Barrasso said the Department of Defense had an obligation to continue funding the site cleanups.
“The Department of Defense, though, has an obligation to leave states like Wyoming whole, to not only provide for our nation’s safety, but also to restore the environment of our communities,” he said.
During Thursday’s meeting of the Restoration Advisory Board, Quinn said the discussion focused on the Corps’ finalization of data collection to take place during this year’s and the 2018 drilling season. After the investigation is complete, she said further plans to remediate would start coming into focus. But until the investigation is complete, Quinn said she couldn’t speculate as to what the next corrective action for Missile Site 4 would be.
“That’s a wide-open question,” she said.
Leo Garcia lives with his wife, Doris, on Southwest Drive about 12 miles east of Missile Site 4. He said they want to pass their 5-acre Laramie County property on to their children.
“I’ve got three daughters, and they’ll take charge of this property when Doris and I are gone,” Garcia said.
Despite the remediation efforts in the area, Garcia said he’s still concerned about what the nearby TCE contamination could mean for his family’s future.
“I don’t know how much further the poison has moved toward our area,” he said.
Quinn said she’s confident people in the area around the Missile Site 4 plume don’t currently have anything to worry about. As long as federal funding continues for the cleanup of Cold War-era missile sites, she said people can count on the Corps’ involvement in preventing any possible harm to health or safety.
“I would not be worried if I lived on Southwest Drive,” Quinn said. “I would stay involved and listen closely. I do trust the (Corps) team to protect public welfare. Should they find something that’s a danger to folks, they are going to intervene.”