Cheers, whistles, hooting and hollering exploded from the Laramie City Council chambers Monday after the Laramie Planning Commission voted not to change the Casper Aquifer Protection Plan. Nearly filling the council chambers, several members of the public attended the commission’s discussion about proposed changes the protection plan’s prohibited uses list.
“The public here is very concerned about this so I’m going to go along with the public perception,” Laramie Planning Commission Chair Kaye Willis said. “The aquifer protection will stand as it is now.”
After hearing public comment, the commission voted 5-1, with commission member Benjamin McKay voting against and Vice Chair Randy Vickers absent, not to approve an amendment to the protection plan’s prohibited uses.
The amendment could have changed the plan’s prohibited-uses list to allow more types of businesses such as automobile dealerships to develop on the aquifer recharge area within city limits provided those businesses developed engineering measures to minimize potential aquifer contamination.
“You are the final decision-making body with this,” Laramie Planning Division Planning Manager Derek Teini told the commission.
The changes to the protection plan were previously reviewed by the Laramie Environmental Advisory Committee, which advised against changing the protection plan, but Teini said state statute provided for planning commissions to be the deciding factors in changes to city-related plans.
“This is a heavy burden to put on us,” Willis said. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that we are tasked to do this — we’re not elected.”
Although most of those present said they were opposed to the changes, two people spoke in favor of the amendment.
“East Grand (Avenue) has always been intended for car dealerships,” said Phil Nicholas, a Laramie resident, attorney and former Wyoming Senate president. “Can we make an exception for these large businesses that we’ve never seen any evidence that they’ve have polluted?”
Nicholas said he was not in favor of the several prohibited-use changes added to the protection plan, but he said he did support changing the plan to allow Spradley Barr Honda to build a new location on the Casper Aquifer recharge area.
“These national franchises have more money, they hire more people,” Nicholas said. “They’re making 50-year investments.”
Another Laramie resident, Rafael Delgadillo, said the area in question, a section of land east of Wal-Mart accounting for about 2 percent of the aquifer recharge area, was already in less than pristine condition.
“This corridor is a major, direct arterial byway bringing residents and travelers to our city,” Delgadillo said. “Just this Saturday, I saw a westbound big-rig roll over at the Grand Avenue exit. As we know, these accidents are a concern for the contaminants that can be released into the aquifer. But a well-engineered project would have contingencies for accidental releases to minimize the hazards.”
Laramie resident and environmental toxicology researcher, Harold Bergman, said he spent more than 40 years researching the environmental effects of polluting water resources.
“Putting anything more on top of this aquifer would be fool hardy,” Bergman said. “You should stay with this list. You should stay with the plan as it is, because that does not increase risk. The possibility of cleaning up an aquifer contaminated by petroleum products is zero.”
While a petroleum-contaminated aquifer could be cleaned to within 90 percent of its original condition, Bergman said it couldn’t be returned to its original state with the technology currently available.
Albany County resident Maura Hanning said she spent 15 years as a civil servant protecting ground water quality in New Mexico.
“While we live in the county, our livelihood relies on the city and my children attend school here,” Hanning said. “I can tell you my experience in the past as a regulator is that you can word things as precisely as you would like, but when it comes time to take enforcement and action, you will be stuck in the administrative process and the contamination will continue.”
In all, 14 people spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion with two supporting the amendment change and 12 opposed.
Additionally, Albany County resident Teri Lund presented the commission with a petition against changing the protection plan. Combining digital signatures and physical signatures, she said about 1,000 people signed the petition.
Commission member Katherine Carlton likened approval of the plan to “opening Pandora’s box” and commission member Justin Piccorelli said he thought the business market incentivized pollution.
Commission member Benjamin McKay said he would be in favor of returning the protection plan to the Laramie Environmental Advisory Committee for review.
McKay agreed with one of the amendment justifications presented by staff to the commission stated allowing a prohibited-use change could provide business developers in Laramie a “unique development opportunity.”
While Piccorelli said the opportunity was not unique and businesses could develop nearly anywhere else in Laramie without affecting the aquifer, McKay said Grand Avenue presented opportunities that couldn’t be found elsewhere in the city.
“I think it’s a pretty big leap to say that Grand Avenue is not a unique development location,” McKay said. “This is the (justification) that I thought was the most strongly considered. It’s not that I don’t want clean water … I think it’s important to everybody. I just cannot in good faith say this is not a unique development opportunity.”