The governments of Albany County and the city of Laramie have agreed to jointly fund a geophysical study of an area east of Laramie. Officials hope the data will allow them to mitigate impacts to the Casper Aquifer that result from chemical spills along the I-80 corridor.
Brad Carr, the director of the University of Wyoming’s Near Surface Geophysics-Hydrogeophysics Labs, will lead the study that will collect data from a helicopter operation conducted in August.
After considerable discussion Tuesday morning, Albany County Commissioners agreed to contribute $75,000 to the project from the 2010 local sales tax fund. Laramie City Council has budgeted another $110,000.
The study is expected to cost $281,500, and the rest of the funding will come from a $96,500 grant received by the county.
Focusing on an area of I-80 just east of Laramie called Telephone Canyon, the study includes an area between the summit rest area and the Grand Avenue exit of I-80, expanding west from the interstate to the city’s well fields in Pope and Soldier Springs.
The goal of the study, Carr said during the Laramie City Council’s Tuesday evening work session, is to create a 3D map and model of the water’s underground movement through layers of rock.
Carr hopes these patterns of movement will give local officials a “big picture” view of where subsurface fluids move from I-80. The goal is to give emergency responders a better idea of where, and how, to respond after a chemical spill.
While there is interest in aquifer mapping throughout eastern Laramie, including the proposed Pilot Hill area, Carr said he wanted to focus on Telephone Canyon as it’s an area considered “one of the most critical.”
“In my professional opinion — and as a citizen of the community — I really feel that area is really the most threatened, potentially, and outside of just sort of general use in the community,” Carr said.
The study involves a manned helicopter flying over the area carrying an electronically charged hoop, which creates an electromagnetic field. As the magnetic field gets into the earth, Carr explained, anything that conducts electricity will create a secondary field, which will hit a receiver attached to the loop. Using the secondary fields as a map, the researchers can pinpoint areas of water, which is conductive to electricity, and the rock surrounding it.
The method has been used for a long time by the mineral and oil exploration industry, but Carr said the “application for groundwater is relatively new.”
Due to Federal Aviation Administration regulations and the thick, steel-enforced roadway, the helicopter will not cross I-80.
Since the study involves a manned helicopter carrying equipment on a cord below, wind and weather conditions are a big limitation. However, Carr said the study would give them more information than they currently have, which would only be helpful.
“I would say right now the lack of knowledge is taken from many different perspectives and sometimes blown out of proportion,” Carr said during the work session. “I think this project gives us the ability to focus on the narrative that’s very much a concern for the municipality, for the county and gives us some answers and insight as to how things actually exist.”
City officials have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the project, while some Albany County officials have been skeptical about its usefulness.
Mayor Joe Shumway said during the City Council’s Tuesday work session he thinks the study is “money well spent.”
“It’s money that we need to look at this because it is such a vital part of our city operation,” Shumway said.
The city has budgeted as much as $285,000 from its water fund on aquifer studies over the next two fiscal years. The Council approved the budget — and study — earlier in June.
Also “100%” supportive of the study, Councilman Paul Weaver said it’s a “community priority.”
Commissioners Pete Gosar and Heber Richardson voted Tuesday morning to help fund the project.
Gosar said the project was a “bargain” since the study would likely cost five-times as much if pursued using the private sector.
Richardson said he hopes the study provides a cursory view, but said he doesn’t expect it will provide the exhaustive information that emergency responders want.
“We won’t necessarily be able to see the entry-points. It’s not that specific,” he said.
Carr said greater detail could come from following up with on-the-ground surface measurements. This study, he said, could help provide clues as to where to target that on-the-ground work.
Commissioner Terri Jones didn’t actually vocally announce her vote, but said that morning she has “problems” with the project. She was both skeptical of the science and said she felt the helicopter operation was an unfair imposition on landowners in the area.
“I don’t think there’s a practical application at this point,” she said. “It’s wishful thinking, and I spent a lot of time doing research and I was not able to find much information at all.”
She said the fact that the helicopter won’t fly over I-80 is a major “flaw” in the project. Though Carr said that local landowners “don’t have a problem” with the study, Jones also said the project was invasive.
“I have a problem with gathering all this imaging,” she said. “No different than if I came out of Canada and they took an X-Ray of my entire vehicle with me in it. I have a problem with that. And I feel this is similar to that where things are being projected down on vehicles and animals.”
David Cunningham, who sits on Albany County’s Planning and Zoning Commission, also spoke in opposition to the project, saying the county’s money would be better spent on actual mitigation efforts along the I-80 corridor.
Cunningham said the county should instead spend its money on the engineering controls and other mitigation efforts proposed by a 2011 Trihydro study of Telephone Canyon.
Cunningham said he felt the data that will be created from the research “does not necessarily lead to a solution for the problem that we’re facing.”
“Research doesn’t necessarily lead to conclusions,” Cunningham told county commissioners. “It leads to more research a lot of the time. Our need here is action.”
Carr agreed that the proposals from 2011 Trihydro study would be useful to implement, but he said that the study to be conducted this summer could also address an imminent concern.
“Having this knowledge now is a lot better than a spill happening, the (Environmental Protection Agency) declaring a brownfield site and then a contractor being brought in after the fact to characterize where it is and where it’s going,” he said.
Despite the skepticism of Jones and Cunningham, emergency management officials said the project does have a practical use.
Aimee Binning, Albany County’s emergency management coordinator, said the data created by the study should help emergency responders have a better idea of where they should prioritize their efforts when there’s a spill along I-80.
The data might also give the county a better idea of whether the mitigation controls proposed in the 2011 Trihydro study are the best solutions.
“We do have some great engineered control studies out there that have made some suggestions on what we should be doing to mitigate the known threats to the Casper Aquifer and throughout the I-80 corridor,” Binning said. “But one of the things we don’t know about the casper aquifer is what our vulnerabilities really are and how do we best target them. One of the man-made mitigations that has been suggested is lining the I-80 corridor and then putting a holding pin, or a pool, down at the bottom. But the problem is: Are we really mitigating the real problem? Do we know where the true vulnerabilities area? We don’t know that answer, so until we can see underground and see where the true vulnerabilities are on that area, it’s really hard to take the man-made engineering suggestions and implement them.”
Laramie Fire Department training chief Kevin Lam echoed similar thoughts during the city’s work session, saying the study would be extremely helpful for the Regional Emergency Response Team No. 3 — comprising of members of LFD — as they respond to hazardous spills along the interstate.
“Any more information about potential vulnerabilities is just that, it’s good information for us to help in planning, potential mitigation, potential preparedness,” Lam said. “That’s where that information would benefit how the Region 3 team looks at a potential spill that may impact the aquifer.”
Although it’s unknown exactly how many hazardous materials are transported along I-80, Lam said the most common contaminants they see carried by trucks on the interstate are petroleum based, including gasoline and diesel fuel.
He added the quantity of a spilled substance, its potential hazards to the team as it cleans it and other variables can affect spills’ behavior and how quickly and successfully it can be contained.
More than just giving emergency responders a way to plan, the study will also help city staff as it monitors city wells.
The study would help city staff see how quickly water from Telephone canyon would recharge into the aquifer. Currently, when a spill occurs the city turns off its wells hoping to avoid potential contamination, but by the time a spill is found in tested well water, it’s in city water, Parkin said.
“Ultimately we want to develop an emergency response plan for our southern well fields, which we don’t have one currently,” he said. “We don’t know how vulnerable we are, we don’t know how exposed we are.”
The study will also help the city and county as each governing body decides what the next steps are, whether it’s the catching basins proposed in the 2011 Trihydro study, additional monitoring wells or, if there is no vulnerabilities, no further action at all.
“We see anomalies in this data, well that’s probably a good spot to go drill a well, right?” Parkin said at the work session. “That’s in the (city’s) budget as well, to kind of follow up with some monitor wells that will also improve the resolution.”
The study results will also help the city as it prepares to update its 2002 Casper Aquifer Protection Plan. Parkin added the project was a great collaboration between the city, county and first responders.