CASPER, Wyo. — The rolling fairways, manicured greens, water hazards and wildlife belie the true purpose of the Three Crowns Golf Course.
The 18-hole public, championship course is designed not only to challenge the golfer but to slowly and naturally eliminate underground pollution left by an oil refinery that stood on the site for more than 80 years.
The golf course is one part of a $160 million effort to turn a rusting, shuttered, polluting eyesore into a useful, rejuvenated recreation and economic development center that cleans the environment. It is touted as a model for what can be done with closed oil refineries around the world.
"I would classify this as a success story," said Felix Flechas, an engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency in Denver. "What happened here, I think, is unique."
Three Crowns sits on 340 acres along the Platte River in the heart of this oil-patch city. The polluting smokestacks, huge storage tanks, more than 200 miles of pipe and tons of concrete of the old refinery are gone. In their place are the verdant golf course, a business park, walking and biking trails, 2,000 new trees, picnic areas, a whitewater park, ducks and deer.
The only hint of hazard is the occasional acrid chemical odor and underground wells in the golf course's rough.
The Casper project's success persuaded British oil giant BP PLC, which owns the site, to make it a model for its other shuttered refineries around the world, including Sugar Creek in Missouri, Wood River in Illinois and Llandarcy in Wales, according to Joe Deschamp, manager of the project for BP.
"It always has to be modified to site-specific conditions, but the concept should work at any former refinery," Deschamp said.
While there have been other projects involving golf courses being built on former industrial land or landfills, the Casper project is unique because of its design to incorporate an active underground cleanup, officials said.
Flechas said the Casper project is impressive because it is an example how a piece of land has come full circle: how the refinery was first built on the High Plains, how it grew into a major supplier of fuel at the expense of the environment, how it became obsolete and an environmental hazard, and now how it is returning to a natural, peaceful setting.
"It came out of the dirt, reached its zenith and was reborn in the site that we see today," said Flechas, who was involved in the Casper refinery site for nearly 20 years. He called it a testament to how a community, local leaders, an oil conglomerate and government can work together.
The Casper project is among about a dozen projects across the nation that have been recognized by a panel of environmental professionals and business, academic and government leaders as an outstanding redevelopment of a polluted former industrial site, known as a brownfield.
Midwest Refining Co. opened the refinery in 1913 to process petroleum produced from nearby oil fields. The first paved road in the county led from the oil field to the city. At the height of production, it employed 750 workers. Standard Oil took over the refinery in 1921 and expanded it. A year later the refinery was touted as the largest in the world for volume of gasoline produced.
The refinery closed in 1991 because of declining oil production in Wyoming, the aging equipment and the impracticality of investing millions of dollars to bring the refinery into compliance with environmental rules. It was a major blow to the city.
The closure also left behind a mess. Over its nearly 80 years of operation, the plant had leaked millions of gallons of crude oil and refined hydrocarbons. An estimated 10 million to 20 million gallons of oil reached the groundwater beneath the refinery site. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons in 1989.
Oil seeped under property outside the refinery and into the Platte River, where an oily sheen formed along the banks. Signs were posted along the river warning people to stay out of the water. The Environmental Protection Agency and Amoco, Standard Oil's name by then, negotiated for several years without resolution on how to clean up the site.
A group of citizens then sued Amoco, saying the refinery posed an "imminent and substantial endangerment" to human health and the environment. In early 1998, the same year BP took over ownership of the refinery, U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer found that Casper residents had a right to expect a "concerted, honest cleanup effort from the company that benefited greatly from the community and its surrounding natural resources."
The ruling spurred a series of actions that included agreements on what was to be done with the property.
To keep the polluted groundwater from seeping into the river, a 35- to 40-foot high steel wall was sunk into the bedrock along the Platte River. A system of pumps keeps the groundwater 6 inches below the river level.
The groundwater is pumped out at a rate of about 700 gallons a minute by nearly 100 wells, and the oil and other chemicals are separated through a series of filtering wetlands — which also serve as water hazards on the golf course.
The system has yielded about 4,000 gallons of oil a month. It will take up to 300 years before the groundwater is considered drinkable.
The treated water from the golf course is then pumped to Soda Lake north of Casper, where the refinery used to dump its wastewater. Soda Lake is being cleaned as well and is now being maintained as waterfowl habitat.
Besides the golf course and lake, business parks have been established on the former refinery site and at a former oil tank farm across the river. The property cannot be used for housing, hotels, nursing homes or detention facilities to protect against future damage claims, said Kraft, whose office is located in a new business park on the site.
"There is absolutely no health risk out here at all," said Alice Kraft, executive director of the board that now manages the site.