Barrasso: Missile sites polluted Wyoming groundwater and Washington must clean them up

When the United States was embroiled in the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, seven Wyoming missile sites were on high alert.

More than half a century later, the sites that the federal government built to hold missiles to protect the nation pose a serious environmental threat to Wyomingites, said Sen. John Barrasso Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in Washington. And it’s the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that those missile sites are cleaned up.

There are 38 defense sites in Wyoming, but those that have left behind the most difficulty for state regulators are the Atlas Missile sites, said Kevin Frederick, administrator of the water quality division at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, in a written statement read before the committee.

Atlas Missiles were designed in the ‘50s and ‘60s to carry nuclear warheads. When servicemen scrubbed the rockets, they used trichloroethylene, a dangerous chemical mixture and known carcinogen that created a legacy of ground water contamination at up to seven Atlas sites near the state’s capitol.

TCE is a sticky substance that sinks to the bottom of aquifers. It is costly to clean up, and even a small amount can have a devastating impact.

Two teaspoons of the substance can contaminate an Olympic-sized swimming pool, he said. Between hundreds and thousands of gallons drained into the Wyoming soil, he added.

The largest TCE plume in Wyoming, and perhaps the country, is located 18 miles west of Cheyenne. Atlas Site 4 is 12 miles long and as many as 3 miles wide in places.

Cheyenne has already experienced contamination in its municipal systems due to TCE and has received help from the Army Corps of Engineers to address the problem. The Corps built a water treatment plant for the city and systems for use by landowners in the region who rely on well water, said Barrasso. But the Corps needed arm-bending to assist Wyoming’s capitol, he said.

“Each time communities and impacted stakeholders try and engage with the Corps on these issues, they have historically been met with an unhelpful attitude,” Barrasso said. “Communities want to have the proper testing done to know the size and extent of these plumes, and where the plumes are expanding … They want adequate funding to ensure their safety.”

To clean up Wyoming’s former defense sites would cost $285 million, according to a 2015 estimate by the Department of Defense. So far remediation at the missile sites has cost $45 million, according to Frederick. Cleanup is ongoing.

“Just speaking for my home state of Wyoming, we are very proud of the role our state has played in deterring the threat that the former Soviet Union posed,” Barrasso said. “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.”