Sitting along U.S. 287 just at the south entrance to Laramie is the looming hulk of an abandoned manufacturing plant on the west side of the highway at Howe Road.
The vacant factory is next to the bustling Mountain Cement Plant that produces cement for concrete products, using raw materials from limestone mines in the vicinity.
Needed for the War
The cement factory was here first. The other abandoned factory was begun in 1944 by the U.S. government at a cost of around five million dollars to process aluminum-bearing ore. Local residents knew what the plant was for. But as Wayne Sutherland of the Wyoming Geological Survey points out, there was not much publicity because anything connected to winning WWII was kept under wraps.
Usually, aluminum is obtained from an ore known as bauxite, but the aluminum source in Albany County is in an igneous rock known as anorthosite. It is found in the Roger Canyon area NE of Laramie. The deposit was described by Katherine Fowler Billings in her 1928 Ph.D. dissertation.
The preferred source, bauxite, is “the principal raw material used by the world’s immense aluminum industry,” according to a 1967 U.S. Geological Survey bulletin. The Wright brothers used lightweight aluminum in 1903 for their aircraft, and gradually many household and military uses developed. As the U.S. entered WWII, the principal source was in Jamaica. Locating a domestic source became a high priority, spurring the development of the Laramie mine and processing facility.
Construction brought jobs to the Laramie area in 1944-45, just as the war ended. Though it might have produced a little ore, the operating jobs disappeared as the plant closed. The urgent need for domestic aluminum ore evaporated. Easier to mine reserves of bauxite in Australia, West Africa and elsewhere were found after WWII.
“Development of ore in the Laramie area became unnecessary and uneconomical, though it continues to be a local mineral resource that could be developed if the need materializes again,” says Sutherland.
Shooting Holes in Gravel
By the 1960s, Ideal Cement Company had purchased the factory. They began a manufacturing process in which stones about one inch in diameter were pierced with small holes. The resulting gravel aggregate adds bulk to concrete and contributed significantly less weight than solid gravel to load-bearing structures.
Laramie native Jerry Hansen recalls that this product, known as Idealite, was used in the 1960s for the upper floors of the UW dormitories along Grand Avenue, west of the Crane-Hill dormitory complex. It may also have been used on the surfaces and curbs of the now-removed Clark Street Viaduct, where the crumbling edges were a cause for concern.
The neighboring cement factory, then called “Monolith Portland Cement,” put in a conveyor belt to deliver to the cement plant small-size gravel that Ideal Cement Co. couldn’t use—a waste product then became a resource for Monolith.
A portion at the back of the factory was occupied by Pete Fillion of Laramie, whose company, Authentic Log Homes, used the space to store and cut logs from Colorado and Montana into prefabricated log buildings. That company is out of business now.
By the 1970s, Idealite either became too costly to ship from Laramie, or was replaced by porous volcanic rock, so the Laramie operation closed. The vacant buildings were taken over by another company, Williams Strategic Metals Corporation (W.R. Metals), based in Stamford, Connecticut. This company purchased the factory in the early 1980s, intending to use it for a new technology.
At the time, environmental regulations were beginning to control smokestack emissions from all power generating plants. One solution was higher smokestacks, but advances in “scrubber” technology looked promising for removing toxic by-products produced when coal is burned.
W.R. Metals had the idea of processing the smokestack sludge and flue dust that was accumulating at power plants to recover some of the marketable materials in this waste. The raw material was shipped by rail to Laramie and stockpiled outside until ready for processing. The company obtained a permit from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and began operations.
Initially W.R. Metals proposed to recover the rare metal indium, but this was before the electronics industry had developed a robust market for it. Therefore the company switched to recovering arsenic acid for which there was a significant market. The company may also have been planning to recover heavy metals as well.
A problem was that the material coming out of the W.R. Metals’ smokestack might have been harmful to humans and animals. Rumors of possible toxicity in the neighborhood of the plant began to circulate. Sometimes the smokestack issued a bright orange plume. The wind carried the effluent toward the east where it passed over several residential neighborhoods and small ranches with livestock. Some people felt they became ill or that their animals had health problems from the airborne pollutants. However, not everyone was affected. That made it hard to pinpoint cause and effect.
Those who became ill faced an uphill battle to convince regulators and the Laramie community that there was a problem. But by 1985 the DEQ Air Quality Administrator, Charles Collins, had received multiple complaints from Laramie residents about the air quality and health effects of the W.R. Metals operation.
Public hearing gets results
In 1985, DEQ began requesting the company to monitor arsenic being emitted; the agency issued repeated notices and conducted site inspections. A complication was that national and state standards for arsenic emissions were inadequate or non-existent then. A public hearing was held in Laramie in November of 1985.
At the hearing, questions were asked about arsenic and other harmful materials contaminating the air, ground and ultimately ground water. Then DEQ discovered that the company had switched their operating plan without adequate notice. Therefore, by 1988 the operating permit had been revoked and the company shut down operations.
W.R. Metals began some cleanup activity in 1988 when the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved. Several different consulting companies worked on the remediation at the site through 1997. Since then, a 2011 report prepared for Wyoming DEQ by the current landowner states that no further remediation had taken place. This report on the Laramie site was written by Opal Group, Inc. and is available on line (lchproject.com/plans).
Now the major landowner of record is a trust, L.C. Holdings Co. with five different parcels of land around 17 Sand Creek Road on which it has been paying taxes. In 2011, this company entered into a Voluntary Remediation Program with DEQ to develop a formal remedy agreement for the site. L.C. Holdings Co. has also acquired several parcels of vacant land zoned for industry adjacent to the factory buildings.
There are several different hazardous materials at the site, not just arsenic. Asbestos was found in the building itself, and other materials such as heavy metals are present that need to be addressed. Cleanup done up to 1997, when W.R. Metals was the owner of record, included removing contaminated storage drums and some of the asbestos.
Further cleanup is complicated by the different materials involved. DEQ spokesmen say that they are currently investigating the best method to pursue with their volunteer partner, L.C. Holdings Co. DEQ did require the company to erect a fence around the property with warning signs to discourage trespassers.
Five years ago, Chilton Tippin of the Boomerang staff did an investigation of the W.R. Metals debacle, published in the newspaper on April 12, 2014. He reported that “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,” adding that DEQ was working to see that the site is cleaned up.
Now (as of March 9, 2019) ownership is divided between three companies, L.C. Holdings Co.(the major landowner), GBP Partnership of Ft. Collins, CO, and Nedlog Technology Group of Laramie. As Tippin reported, the owners of L.C. Holdings Co. were two men who were deceased as of 2014 and the decision-making at the time his article was published (as well as now) is in the hands of the estate administrator, Kenneth Richey, whose mailing address is in Englewood, CO.
A further development is that L.C. Holdings Co. has not paid the 2018 taxes assessed on four of the five parcels it holds, amounting to over 30 acres at 17 Sand Creek Road. Someone purchased a lien on the back taxes as an investment, which would generate 18 percent interest according to the Albany County Treasurer’s office. The name of the lien holder is not public record, however, and L.C. Holdings continues as the landowner.
Nedlog Technology Group paid $22 in taxes for 2018 on their one portion of the site, which is only a quarter acre surrounded by the other factory site owners. GBP Partnership is also currently paid up for the 2018 taxes of just under $2,000 on the two portions it owns.
Clean up plans
In 2014, Kenneth Richey was quoted by Tippin as saying that money was being spent to clean up the property but that the process was proceeding slowly. Tippin has moved away from Laramie, so not much, if any, reporting has been published on where the project stands now. Some uncataloged documents on the project from Opal Group Inc., are on the “public review table” outside (or possibly to be moved inside) the Wyoming Room of the Albany County Public Library, though none are later than 2014.
DEQ’s website for the Voluntary Remediation Program (VRP) states that the goal is to work with the partners to “clean up sites so that they can be returned to productive use.” L.C. Holdings Company’s own remediation plan says “former raw materials stockpiles, impoundments and equipment storage areas outside of the buildings will be investigated as part of this VRP to determine if residual contamination of the soils or ground water is present. These locations will include areas known to have been impacted by spills during operations.”
These objectives may be achieved at some point in the future. In the meantime the owners have had no choice but to leave the site vacant all these years while professionals investigate and studies are done to determine how to proceed.
So the old buildings, once the proud symbol of a country that could do almost anything to win a war, now present an eyesore—a toxic site where only the most foolhardy humans would venture to trespass. What contaminants might spread from wind, birds landing and ground-based animals digging about the site is left to conjecture.
Editor’s Note: The website of the Albany County Assessor’s Office has an online ownership map with links to property tax information (co.albany.wy.us.assessor). This story and others in this series are archived on the website of the Albany County Historical Society (wyoachs.com). Judy Knight is collection manager at the Laramie Plains Museum.