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Geologic Hazards to Human Health in the Wind River Basin, Central Wyoming: 

Geologic Hazards to Human Health in the Wind River Basin, Central Wyoming Suzanne M. (Suki) Smaglik Central Wyoming College Riverton, WY On the Cutting Edge Workshop: Geology & Human Health, Chico Hot Springs, Montana, May 2004


INTRODUCTION Applying for this workshop on Geology & Human Health inspired me to take a look at my own backyard and determine how these subjects are related. For years, I have been including environmental issues content into chemistry and geology courses. However, not having any background in ecology or biology, I tended to focus on land degradation rather than how these changes affect the life that is supported by this land. Now I see that these two topics cannot be separated. There’s plenty to be done here…

Backwards & Forwards: 

Backwards & Forwards I have lived in the Wind River Basin (WRB) for only 4 years. I am just beginning to understand the local geology. The information presented in this poster is purely anecdotal and I take all responsibility for mistakes and misunderstandings. It is my intention to find facts for each of these issues and to use those facts in my courses. I also hope to encourage a few students to undertake a research project doing something that is relevant to them and to their community.


GEOLOGY The Wind River Basin (WRB) lies within Fremont County, the largest county in Wyoming. It is defined on the west, by Togwotee Pass in the Absaroka Mountains; in the east, by the Oligocene sediments of the Beaver Rim and the preCambrian Granite Mountains; on the south, by the Wind River Mountains; and on the north, by the Owl Creek Mountains. The WRB was formed by Laramide uplift of the Wind River and Owl Creek blocks, which exposed titled layers of Paleozoic and Mesozoic sediments at the foothills. The basin is filled with the colorful Eocene sediments of the Wind River formation as well as significant Pleistocene glacial deposits.


HUMAN POPULATION There are two substantial towns in the Wind River Basin. Riverton, population 9000, is home to Central Wyoming College (CWC) and the Brunton Company, and is located in the center of the basin. Lander, population 7000, is the county seat and is home to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI), Sinks Canyon State Park and the CWC Field Station, and is located in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains. Other population centers in the Wind River Basin include Dubois, Hudson, Pavillion, Shoshoni, Ethete and Fort Washakie. The later two towns are the cultural centers for the Wind River Indian Reservation, which serves the tribes of the Northern Arapahoe and the Eastern Shoshoni.

FOSSIL FUELS - Oil & Gas: 

FOSSIL FUELS - Oil & Gas The Paleozoic and Mesozoic layers are folded toward the bottom of the ramp of the northern flank of the Wind River Mountains, creating a series of elongated domes (anticlines) running from the southeast corner of the basin three-quarters of the way to the northwest corner of the basin. The anticlines may continue farther to the northwest but if so, are currently buried below the Absaroka Volcanics. These domes are the source of petroleum, currently residing in the Ten Sleep Sandstone and Madison Limestone formations. The first producing oil well in Wyoming is still producing, just north of Lander. Oil revenues are the main source of income on the Wind River Reservation. The long-term (~150 yrs) development of oil and gas along the WRB domes has not created a health hazard up to this point. The products are removed from the site for refinement in another location outside the WRB.


FOSSIL FUELS - Coal & CBM Some of the Mesozoic layers also contain coal, which was mined for a brief time in the town of Hudson. Coal bed methane (CBM) production is a fast-growing industry in Wyoming (specifically in the Powder River Basin, to the north). There is currently talk of developing CBM in the Wind River Basin. However, future development, specifically for CBM, may cause health hazards for humans, livestock and wildlife if not done responsibly. CBM wells are often closely spaced and can devastate the landscape.


FOSSIL FUELS - CBM & Water There are often large quantities of water brought up with CBM. Some of it is potable, while some can be terrifically saline. There is much debate about the destiny of this water. Most cannot be re-injected because of EPA regulations. Some is held in ponds and used for irrigation or livestock. Much is allowed to flow on the land, to reach the nearest stream or water table of its own volition. Because of the alkalinity of most of the soils in the state, even good water can leach out the salts and ruin the soil for any further use (much like the result of poor flood irrigation practices).


COAL & SULFUR Wyoming coal is some the cleanest-burning coal in the world, with regard to sulfur emissions. Most western coal is produced from the Powder River Basin. There is also coal in the Green River Basin, just over the mountains to the south, of the WRB. The Jim Bridger Power Plant uses innovative technology to mine the coal and transfer it directly to the onsite power plant. Loose emission controls have led to some problems with acidic emissions originating at the plant and traveling over the ‘airshed’ of the Wind River Mountains.


ACID LAKES Lakes in the WR mountains are becoming acidified and a culprit is being sought by the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission (WREQC), an inter-tribal agency on the reservation. WREQC is attempting to define ‘airshed’ and watersheds standards for minimum pollutant levels allowed on the reservation. Besides the ‘local’ power plant emissions, there is evidence to suggest the pollutants from the Salt Lake Valley, and even as far as Los Angeles are reaching the WRB.


ACID FOG Natural gas produced in the WRB is high-sulfur gas and produces many train loads of raw sulfur per month. Much of it is flamed off the rigs, producing acidic gases. Most of it is shipped to a processing plants, to become sulfuric acid or for other manufacturing needs. Peak Sulfur operates a plant just south of Riverton, utilizing a plant that was used to process uranium. Output from this plant often exceeds regulations and on the rare foggy nights in the WRB, sulfur and sulfuric acid drift into a residential Arapahoe neighborhood just across the highway (and just downwind). This acid-fog creates several respiratory ailments in these residents.


URANIUM MINING The sand and gravel deposits on the east side of the basin and where famous Wyoming geologist, David Love, developed his theory of “roll-front” deposits. The uranium source was disseminated in the Granite Mountains to the east. Weathering broke down the granite, leaving uranium-rich sandstone deposits. Water flow concentrated the uranium in the sandstone debris as it filled the basin. For many years the Gas Hills Uranium District produced much of the country’s uranium for energy and “defense.” Riverton be came more than a supply run for local ranchers.


URANIUM MILLING As a result of uranium, Riverton became a viable city and developed a community college and other infrastructure. Not only were the mines productive, but the town also was home to the Susquahanna uranium processing plant. The open pit mines in the Gas Hills have been somewhat remediated, and the processing plant is currently used to process sulfur (see above).At the former uranium mill site south of Riverton, there was (is?) groundwater and soil contamination. Residents have been warned to drink bottled water, or better yet, to relocate. Most stubbornly refuse to move because of the tribal history of the people with their land.


RADON There appears to be a naturally high radon level in the gravels along the Wind River and its tributaries. People who build in this area are warned to have proper ventilation to avoid health problems associated with radon (lung cancer in particular). There are tales of a high source of radon associated with the warm springs in Ft. Washakie. Whether this is beneficial or detrimental to human health has not been determined.


HARD-ROCK MINING - Gold In the 19th century, gold was found in the preCambrian meta-volcanic rocks at South Pass, at the southeastern end of the WRB. The State Park system runs an interesting town exhibit including many of the original buildings and stamp mills that operated in town. The surrounding hills are littered with shafts and adits that make for dangerous walking. The state recently purchased the largest of the mines, the Carrissa, and proposes to turn it into another part of the park. However, besides the deteriorated conditions of the mine, there is abundant poisonous runoff from the mining process that needs to be dealt with.


HARD-ROCK MINING - Iron The Atlantic City Iron Mine was opened during the 1960’s and produced ore until it closed in 1983. Lander grew into a fair sized town during this time and the economy suffered greatly after it closed. There is a substantial amount of iron still in the rocks, but it is no longer economically feasible to mine it. Most of the waste has been remediated and much of the land has been subdivided and sold as cabin sites. The open pit mine has flooded into a nice alpine lake that attracts water fowl to the area. The state highway that was diverted through some treacherous corners to accommodate the mine, is planned to be moved back through the mine tailing area in the next few years.


WATER & CLIMATE One of the major concerns of both humans and wildlife is the current drought situation. We are currently beginning the fifth year of drought in the WRB. Snowfall was about normal this year but was not enough to make up for the previous years of dryness. This spring has been unseasonably warm and portends a disastrous summer and fall. In-stream flow in the Wind River and its tributaries has been an ongoing battle between the ranchers, the tribes and the state. Current water-right usage dictates a priority to agricultural purposes.

WATER, continued: 

WATER, continued After the treaty establishing the Wind River Reservation occurred, the U.S. Government ‘bought’ back a large swath of land in the northern basin for homesteading ranchers to settle. Thus, the town of Riverton and other smaller towns, were established within the original reservation boundaries. Despite the fact that the Indians have senior water rights, because they want to use them for in-stream flow rather than irrigation, the ranchers are allowed to usurp their rights. The recent formation of the Wind River Alliance is a group of Indians and non-Indians fighting to protect the health of the Wind River, and in turn, the physical and spiritual health of its people.


LANDFILLS The towns of Riverton and Lander are currently struggling with landfill issues. Both of these landfills have less than five years of use left. Citizens groups and city planners are trying to come up with a solution. Both towns have developed recycling programs through a partnership with Community Entry Services (CES), an agency that works with brain-damaged individuals and provides jobs and independence training. While recycling is fairly limited, the Lander Recycling program is more extensive than elsewhere in the county. The Lander Recycles community group pushed for glass recycling and was able to contract with a local service that crushes it and uses the glass for road base in local construction. The Fremont Country Commission has the ultimate jurisdiction on landfills. They are refusing to approve new landfills because of what they think are unfair restrictions imposed by the WDEQ and the EPA: lining the landfill to prevent groundwater contamination.


SELENIUM The uptake of selenium by woody asters and the consequent increased concentration of selenium in soils is a problem in much of south central Wyoming. In the WRB, specifically in the western part near Dubois, the Big Horn sheep are experiencing birth defects due to extremely low-levels of selenium. There are currently studies underway to address this problem. In the means time salt blocks containing selenium have been placed alnog the migration routes in this area. How will this affect human health?


THE BIG ONE … Of course, one of the dangers that most people in the WRB worry about is the ‘overdue’ eruption of Yellowstone volcano, and whether they will live to suffer its consequences. If we are not immediately fried or smothered, how are the gasses and ash clouds going to affect our health? How long will we be able to live and how will we live?

…and other natural disasters: 

…and other natural disasters Earthquakes are also part of life in the WRB although they are not as strong or as frequent as those to the west. Climbers in the Wind River Mountains and skiers on Togwotee Pass must take precautions from rock falls and avalanches. Drivers through Wind River Canyon, in the Owl Creek Mountains, must be wary of house-sized boulders coming down the cliffs, especially in the spring. All in all, not a bad day in Paradise!

Acknowledgements & References: 

Acknowledgements & References Lots of words, no pictures, sorry! As I said in the introduction, this poster is more like a shopping list of what needs to be investigated rather than research in progress. I would like to acknowledge all of the people who have shared their stories with me and helped determine this list of threats to human health. I hope that sometime in the near future, the students at CWC, and citizens of the WRB will pick up the torch and begin investigating these problems and considering their solutions.

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