Arsenic far exceeding levels considered safe by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is lurking in the groundwater beneath an industrial site south of Laramie.
Whether that contamination is moving from the property and into the surrounding area’s groundwater is currently under investigation.
Roughly 31 acres in size, the site is about two miles south of Laramie off U.S. Highway 287 at 17 Sand Creek Drive and is owned by Englewood, Colo.-based L.C. Holdings, LLC.
The derelict structure is also home to a 1,000-ton pile of flue dust — stored under plastic tarps — that could be contaminated with lead, arsenic, cadmium, copper, zinc and mercury, according to Albany County Planning Office documents.
The DEQ won’t know whether there’s a threat to residents or livestock in the area until wells are drilled to test groundwater beyond the site’s perimeter, said P.J. Wilber, DEQ Voluntary Remediation Program site manager.
There is no evidence to indicate contaminants have migrated, Wilber said.
The property was used for more than 60 years by various companies and governmental agencies for the production of aluminum, arsenic acid, strategic metals and cement.
Arsenic acid was made for use as a wood preservative, according county documents.
Samples from one well drilled on-site revealed arsenic concentrations 3,100-times higher than DEQ cleanup levels, according to a 2012 report on cleanup efforts.
DEQ sets cleanup levels for the “protection of human health.”
Arsenic’s cleanup level is 10 micrograms per liter (ug/L). The well returned a concentration of 31,000 ug/L.
K.J. Reddy, University of Wyoming professor of ecosystem science and management and arsenic specialist, called that level “extremely high.”
“I’ve been working for quite some time with lots of groundwater samples across the United States, and I’m also aware of some of the things we are doing internationally, and I have never seen this high concentration of arsenic in a groundwater well,” Reddy said.
Arsenic at those concentrations is dangerous if humans or animals consume it, Reddy said.
“If there’s a concern with groundwater quality, the first question to ask is: ‘What is the use of the groundwater?’” he said.
Groundwater beneath the site is not accessible by residents or animals, Wilber said.
The next step is to determine whether the groundwater has spread off-site, he said.
The DEQ is also overseeing the cleanup of a 1,000-ton pile of contaminated flue dust at the site.
Arvada, Colo.-based Nedlog Technology Group transported the dust to the local property after removing it from an Idaho superfund site in the 1980s, according to Albany County Planning Office documents.
Superfund is an Environmental Protection Agency program dedicated to cleaning up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
The contaminated dust was transported to the Albany County property from the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Superfund Site, according to county documents.
Bunker Hill, located in northern Idaho, was listed as a superfund site in 1983.
The EPA website describes Bunker Hill as “one of the largest environmental and human health cleanup efforts in the country.”
The flue dust is contained under tarps and is not at risk for spreading off the property, Wilber said.
“If people got in there and cut through the plastic over the flue ash, obviously they’d be exposed to that, and it wouldn’t be an ideal situation,” he said. “We obviously don’t want people in there wandering around.”
Nedlog Technology is now defunct. L.C. Holdings is funding the groundwater and flue dust cleanup.
L.C. Holdings entered the DEQ Voluntary Remediation Program in 2011.
When the cleanup is complete, the DEQ should give L.C. Holdings a release from future environmental liability, at which point the company plans to liquidate the property.
L.C. Holdings contracted Opal Group, Inc., a Colorado-based engineering firm, to investigate the site and make cleanup recommendations.
Opal should begin taking action on the recommendations — including testing groundwater beyond property boundaries — this spring, said Ken Richey, administrator of the L.C. Holdings estate.
“As soon as the ground thaws out and we can move the equipment in, we’re planning on doing that in fairly short order,” he said.
A timeline for the remainder of the project has not been set forth, Richey said.
The project must adapt cleanup practices as results come in, and the L.C. Holdings estate funds the project as money is available, he said.
“You don’t want to kill the golden goose, because you need the eggs to clean up the property,” Richey said. “We’re spending the eggs to clean up the property, but they don’t come out as fast as we’d like them to.”
The initial field investigation for the cleanup was during two site visits in summer 2012.
Opal drilled eight groundwater-sampling wells and dug nine soil-sampling pits.
In addition to the well with arsenic levels at 31,000 ug/L, two others were above DEQ cleanup levels. One well yielded arsenic concentrations of 34 ug/L. Another yielded arsenic concentrations of 70 ug/L.
The groundwater was encountered at 12-17 feet, which is likely shallower than wells drilled to tap into Albany County aquifer waters, Wilber said.
Cadmium, manganese, cobalt, lithium, phosphorus, selenium and uranium were also found in levels beyond DEQ cleanup thresholds, although none of those metals are as concerning as arsenic, Wilber said.
The next step is to determine whether arsenic is spreading from the site, he said.
“With all the arsenic that was used on this site, I’m sure that at some point in time they had a spill of arsenic acid,” Wilber said. “Hopefully, it hasn’t gone that far, but we won’t know until we get out there and investigate.”
Opal reports state the likelihood of a spreading plume is low but possible.
A work plan was approved earlier this year for four additional wells to test whether the arsenic is spreading, Wilber said.
Until samples from those wells are tested, the DEQ can’t tell whether groundwater arsenic is a threat to people or livestock in the area, he said.
The investigation also identified the flue dust as a priority, Wilber said.
Per DEQ regulations, the dust was supposed to have been treated or removed within 90 days, according to Opal reports.
It’s likely been there since the 1980s, according to county documents.
Opal plans to treat the dust with a compound that would neutralize it.
Once rendered non-toxic, the dust could potentially be disposed of at a local landfill, as opposed to a landfill specially designated for hazardous wastes, according to the Opal report.
Richey said the estate hopes to have the work done as soon as economically feasible.
“We’re certainly committed to completing the project and doing so in an above-board, ethical way,” he said. “We’re not hiding anything. We do want to get this property cleaned up, so we can pass it on to someone who can do something with it.”
Arsenic toxicity in animals and people
Arsenic concentrations discovered in at least three groundwater wells on the L.C. Holdings, LLC., property exceed safe consumption levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency for people.
Additionally, arsenic concentrations in one well exceed recommended safe levels for livestock consumption.
Arsenic is a semi-metallic element in the periodic table.
It can enter drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural and industrial practices, according to the EPA.
One on-site groundwater well found arsenic at 31,000 micrograms per liter (ug/L).
The arsenic standard for drinking water is 10 micrograms per liter (ug/L) for people, according to the EPA.
Non-cancer effects include thickening and discoloration of skin; stomach pain; nausea; vomiting; diarrhea; numbness in hands and feet; partial paralysis; and blindness, according to the EPA.
Arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostate, according to the EPA.
Merl Raisbeck, University of Wyoming professor of veterinary sciences, said the recommended threshold for livestock is 1,000 micrograms per liter (ug/L).
“That would be the cutoff,” he said. “Below that shouldn’t be a concern. That’s about 100-fold higher than the human level.”
Arsenic is mainly a gastrointestinal poison for animals, Raisbeck said. The classic symptom of arsenic poisoning in animals is bloody diarrhea.
“Arsenic also affects liver, kidney — pretty much all the organ systems,” he said. “And if the dose is high enough, you can have acute death without any signs.”
Animals would likely have to consume arsenic in its pure form for acute death, Raisbeck said.
The arsenic in groundwater beneath the L.C. Holdings property is not accessible by people or animals, a Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality official said.
The DEQ is overseeing the drilling of four wells beyond the site’s boundaries to determine whether the arsenic has spread.
History of the plant south of town
The U.S. Bureau of Mines built the plant at 17 Sand Creek Drive in 1944 to extract aluminum from bauxite, according to an Albany County Planning Office report.
The site traded hands through 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and various companies used it to produce cement, refine metals and create arsenic acid, among other industrial practices.
Williams Strategic Metals, Inc., bought part of the facility and began operations in December 1980.
At one point, Williams Strategic Metals, also called W.R. Metals, produced 46 tons of arsenic acid a month, used at different times in the site’s history to treat wood or extract strategic metals, according to reports compiled by Opal Group, Inc., a Colorado-based engineering firm hired to investigate and clean the property.
During the 1980s, residents on Howe Road, in the vicinity of the property, complained of airborne contaminants emitted from W.R. Metals’ smokestacks.
Albany County resident George Gill, University of Wyoming anthropology professor emeritus, said the airborne arsenic killed livestock in the area, caused infertility in residents and animals, and made several people along Howe Road ill, among other problems.
When W.R. Metals began ramping up activities in the early 1980s, Gill said he began having respiratory problems and tingling sensations in his arms.
Gill went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and was told his problems were a result of peripheral neuropathy from toxic contamination.
The Mayo Clinic could not tell him what had contaminated his body or where it came from, he said.
“They said, ‘It’s spreading fast, and you better find out where the source of that is and stop this, or you’re going to be in a wheelchair next time we see you,’” Gill said.
Gill came back to Laramie and had his ideas regarding the contaminants’ source, he said.
“By that time, we already had the suspicions it was airborne and was coming from that plant,” Gill said.
In the following years, many residents moved away, Gill said.
Others formed a committee called Albany County Citizens for a Clean Environment, which advocated for controls on airborne emissions from the plant. After pressure from the committee helped bring stricter Environmental Protection Agency regulations to the plant, W.R. Metals ceased operations in the early 1990s, Gill said.
Although he doesn’t have any medical records directly linking his problems to arsenic emissions from the plant, Gill said the writing was on the wall.
“It all went away after we stopped this place,” he said. “My allergies went away. My hypoglycemia went away. My blood sugar was back to normal. After five years, (my neighbor) and I got rid of our tingles and jingles.”
After W.R. Metals discontinued operations, health was restored to other residents and livestock along Howe Road as well, Gill said.
W.R. Metals removed hazardous wastes from the site under EPA and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality oversight and ceased operations in the 1990s, said P.J. Wilber, who manages the L.C. Holdings Voluntary Remediation Program for the DEQ.
The site is currently owned by L.C. Holdings, LLC.
The company entered a Voluntary Remediation Program with the DEQ in 2011.
L.C. Holdings had acquired ownership of portions of the site by the 1990s, according to county documents, but the deed on file in the Albany County Assessor’s Office is dated Sept. 22, 2011.
However, Albany County Planning Office documents state that, by 2010, the entire 31-acre site was consolidated under L.C. Holdings ownership.
Thomas Clark and his son, Ryan Clark, owned L.C. Holdings.
The Clarks used the property south of Laramie to extract heavy metals, said Ken Richey, administrator of the L.C. Holdings estate.
Both Clarks died by 2008, leaving the estate under Richey’s management with L.C. Holdings.