NEWCASTLE — Something in the air here made Rhonda Sandness sick on July 29.
“It was so pungent and so strong,” Sandness said. “It smelled like dead cattle and propane mixed together. I couldn’t see. My eyes were watering. My throat felt like it was closing up. I couldn’t breathe.”
Forest Sullivan says it filled his home, killed birds in his backyard and sickened his dogs. The sulfuric acid smell lingered for days and caused Carol Wolfe’s throat to burn and bleed.
Sullivan called 911 on July 29 to report what he assumed was a noxious odor — and a public safety issue — caused by the Wyoming Refining Co. Bad smells are not unusual at the oil refinery, which is located on Main Street in this town of 3,000.
The sprawling refinery covers 46 acres on the western edge of Newcastle. But by U.S. refinery standards, the refinery is small, ranking 127th out of the nation’s 141 refineries.
On average, it turns 14,000 barrels of crude oil into petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, aviation fuel, propane and butane every day. By comparison, the nation’s largest refinery processes 1.24 million barrels of oil every day.
That industrial process produces its share of odors, Wyoming Refining’s president Pat Havener admits.
The refinery does not, however, admit to causing the illness-inducing smells July 29.
All of its operational and meteorological data from those dates show no emissions out of the ordinary, and an internal investigation failed to turn up any spills, releases or “other unusual occurrences or upsets that could have caused unusual odors off-site,” a refinery manager said in an Aug. 17 letter to Wolfe.
Neither the refinery nor the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality can tell Sandness, Sullivan or Wolfe what made them sick in July. It’s that lack of information that is a common frustration for members of the Newcastle Trust, a group of about 180 people who accuse the refinery of polluting the air, ground and water in Newcastle.
“We want to expose the fact that we’re a sick little town,” said Terry Elliott, co-chairman of the trust.
Elliott and Ellis Hemler, 86, vice president of the local advocacy group Citizens for Responsible Government, are at the center of an increasingly hostile conversation in town over public health and safety issues surrounding the refinery.
They hope for monetary compensation from Wyoming Refining through mediation, but the trust does not have any current legal action against the refinery.
Elliott and his wife, Janet, attribute neurological and other medical problems to heavy metal toxicity aggravated by refinery emissions. Hemler lost two wives to cancer — in 1986 and in 2007 — a fact that he also blames on Wyoming Refining.
The refinery does have a history spotted with spills, leaks and soil contamination that have occurred over its more than 80 years of operation. That includes a 2005 pipeline leak at a pumping station at Mule Creek Junction, where remediation is still ongoing after the 6-inch pipeline that brings gasoline from the refinery to Rapid City leaked up to 200 barrels.
And trust members offer plenty of anecdotal evidence of abnormally high rates of various cancers, asthma and other illnesses in Weston County but little scientific data to substantiate it.
The Wyoming Department of Health said it has not documented a link between the refinery and higher cancer rates, or any other public health issues, in Newcastle. But Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti said the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is looking at Newcastle’s health statistics.
Between 2002 and 2008, cancer was the cause of 27 percent of all deaths in Newcastle, a rate that the state health department calls “comparable” to statewide cancer death rates.
Statewide, Wyoming has a lower cancer mortality rate than the U.S. average. The most current available data (2002-2006) puts the U.S. cancer death rate at about 187 people per 100,000. Wyoming’s death rate is about 177 per 100,000.
But Weston County’s cancer rate, where Newcastle is located, is 226 per 100,000. It is also higher than the overall cancer death rate for two counties where the state’s two largest refineries, in Cheyenne and Casper, are located. Laramie County’s annual cancer death rate is 185.3; Natrona County’s is 184.2. Of Wyoming’s five oil refineries, Wyoming Refining is the second smallest.
Much of the community discussion over the refinery has taken place on the letters to the editor page of the News Letter Journal, where editor Bob Bonnar has banned Elliott from his offices.
The paper recently suspended all letters to the editor about the refinery.
That includes Anita Ottema’s letters in support of Wyoming Refining. Ottema, 80, moved to Newcastle from North Dakota with her husband, Don, in the 1950s. She worked at a grocery store next door to the refinery for 22 years and has no concerns about ill effects from it. She is much more apt to worry about the economic viability of her town and the 89 jobs that the refinery brings to Newcastle.
“I tell you what I worry about: I worry about no grocery store,” she said. “The smell? Sure, but so does a feedlot or a saw mill.”
Wyoming Refining has been big business in Newcastle ever since Duff Gray built a refinery there in 1927. It operated under several independent owners until 1968, when it merged into Tesoro Petroleum. Today, Wyoming Refinery is a Denver-based subsidiary of the energy conglomerate Hermes Products. The company has a $6.5 million annual payroll.
‘We make fuel’
Havener won’t comment on community divisions over the refinery.
“We don’t get into that. We make fuel,” he said. “We make a product people want.”
Wyoming Refining takes all resident complaints seriously, Wyoming Refinery spokesman Bob Neufeld said. But Elliott and Hemler obviously have frustrated refinery officials.
“We try to take every one of their complaints very seriously and get to the bottom of it,” Neufeld said. “But they often get their facts wrong.”
Elliott contends that the refinery has in the past year or so installed at least 10 new storage tanks for various products.
Not true, said Michael Farnsworth, vice president of refining for the company.
Although the refinery has been busy with numerous upgrades, the only new tank it has acquired in at least the past decade is the one that will be used to store an agricultural grade fertilizer, ammonium thiosulfate. The fertilizer will be produced as a refinery byproduct once a new Sour Water Ammonia to Ammonium Thiosulfate unit, or SWAATS, comes online later this year. The SWAATS unit will combine elements removed by treatment units to create the new product that will be marketed in the region.
Elliott sees the coming upgrades at Wyoming Refining as a partial victory for residents and credits them to pressure from him and others.
The 64-year-old worked at the Black Thunder coal mine near Newcastle for 23 years. He has been diagnosed by Mayo Clinic with heavy metals toxicity, including mercury poisoning.
He is angry about the outcome of a lawsuit that he and 46 other current and former residents brought against Wyoming Refinery for damages it caused in March 2002.
A malfunction on March 24, 2002, in the refinery’s fluidized catalytic cracking unit spewed 20 tons of chemical-laden catalyst over the town, blanketing streets, homes and cars with a brown dust. Catalyst is material used in the refining process that changes the compounds in crude oil into lighter substances such as gasoline.
A negotiated settlement was reached in 2008 in that lawsuit, but the Elliotts opposed it. They were eventually maneuvered into accepting it, under protest, by the other plaintiffs. The court imposed a confidentiality agreement, which Elliot ignores. His share of that 2008 settlement was $8,000, he said.
Alarmed by flaring
The 2002 catalyst malfunction was unusual, but the “flaring” incidents that often draw public attention to the refinery are not.
All refineries flare — burn off excess product — usually after a power outage or when the refining process has been interrupted for some reason, according to Tanner Shatto, a Department of Environmental Quality engineer who oversees regulatory action for the Newcastle refinery.
“Flaring is an emergency safety valve that all refineries have. It’s done to prevent an explosion. All the gases in that area of the refinery then go to the flare,” Shatto said.
Given Wyoming’s volatile weather patterns, power outages from high winds or thunderstorm activity occur regularly in the refinery. And because the flame of a flare is so visible, especially when that combustion is accompanied by a lot of smoke, the public can misinterpret it.
By federal Environmental Protection Agency mandate, the only time a flaring incident must be reported to the Department of Environmental Quality is when the emissions from it cause more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide to be released into the air in a 24-hour period, Shatto said. The last time a Wyoming Refinery flare exceeded 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide was July 3, 2009. There have been numerous flarings since then, but none exceeding the 500-pound limit, not even during a March 30 incident in which the cracking unit produced a dramatic amount of smoke because of incomplete combustion after a power outage.
An impressive flare, it was described by many Newcastle residents as an orange cloud, but Department of Environmental Quality reports show it produced 392 pounds of sulfur dioxide, well below the reportable threshold.
Culture of denial
Sandness, 50, has lived in Newcastle for 14 years and, like many of its residents, used to accept the health risks of living close to a refinery.
A culture of denial pervades the town, she said.
“People just say, ‘The refinery was here first, so if you don’t like it….’ Or they say, ‘Yeah, I smelled it, but my son works there, or my husband works there, so I’m just going to stay out of it.’”
That changed for Sandness on July 29, when she rushed home from her job at the Old Mill Inn to rescue her two dogs from the same smell that slurred her speech and left her with symptoms that range from migraine headaches to chronic fatigue.
She refused medical treatment, she said, because she has no health insurance and couldn’t afford an ambulance trip or a hospital stay.
Sullivan is indignant at the idea that he and others should move away from Newcastle if they are unhappy with the refinery.
“Should I have to move because they don’t follow the laws?” he asks. “We can’t go nowhere else.”
As a heavy equipment operator in a coal mine, Sullivan recently joined the Newcastle Trust. He wants more information about what the refinery does. Department of Environmental Quality inspection records from Wyoming Refining are all public, including the flare reports, but they are not available online. The public has to travel to Sheridan to access them.
“I want to know what made me sick a month and a half ago,” he said. “I want better information for the public.”
There is one Department of Environmental Quality air-monitoring site in Newcastle that measures sulfur dioxide concentrations in the air. State and national standards for sulfur dioxide are 0.5 parts per million over a three-hour period. In 2009, the Newcastle site’s highest three-hour period measurement was .026 ppm, according to the department. The concentration of sulfur dioxide in Newcastle’s air was even lower when measured against 24-hour and annual time period standards.
That data is viewed with skepticism by Newcastle Trust members, who doubt the positioning of the monitor and question the veracity of that data and most other information out of the refinery.
“I think they’re burying something,” Sullivan said.
Farnsworth knows improved communication with the town would help alleviate people’s suspicions of the refinery, but he said things such as on-site tours to show off the newest emissions control features are not feasible for logistical and safety reasons.
Wyoming Refining follows all EPA and Department of Environmental Quality rules and regulations, Farnsworth said, and it passes state and federal on-site inspections annually.
The state Department of Environmental Quality inspects the refinery once or twice a year, at least once jointly with the EPA, according to Lily Barkau, Wyoming Refinery site manager for the department.
Farnsworth estimates that department staff inspect about a dozen times a year, sometimes surprise inspections.
Farnsworth is a Newcastle native who earned an environmental engineering degree before returning to his hometown to live and raise a family. He loves Newcastle, and he is proud to be an employee of Wyoming Refinery.
“I was born and raised in this town,” he said. “I sort of wear my heart on my sleeve about this. A very large majority of the town supports the refinery. A few do not.”
Like Farsworth, McKaylia Haynes, 22, grew up in Newcastle because her dad hauled crude oil into the refinery. Today, about 60 percent of the crude oil that fills a 50,000-barrel intake tank at Wyoming Refining is piped in from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota.
“If we didn’t have the refinery, we wouldn’t be here, that’s for sure,” Haynes said.
Haynes has always been healthy, and insists she isn’t worried about raising her own 10-month old daughter, Tealah, in Newcastle.
She and Jessica Holmes expressed skepticism about the Newcastle Trust and its allegations that Wyoming Refining is to blame for health problems.
“They’ll pretty much blame the refinery for everything,” Holmes said.