'Devil' exorcised from 'playground'

After years of neglect and bureaucratic buck-passing, an old refinery is cleaned up. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

"Devil's Playground" will soon be nothing but a memory.

The site of the long-derelict Oriental Refinery, which for decades was a wasteland of abandoned buildings and rusting train cars, will soon fall quiet again, as a long remediation project draws to a close - leaving the site a grassy field.

Phillips 66, the owner of the site, is entering the final phase of rehabilitation, said Becky Hesslen, remediation manager for the oil company.

"We're really happy we can come in and make this place more beautiful," said Hesslen.

Two years after the site was fenced off, and a year after the iconic oil tanks and train cars were hauled away, contractors are busily replacing the site's contaminated soil. Upwards of 70 truckloads a day haul asbestos-tainted dirt from the site to a landfill in Pueblo, while other trucks arrive with backfill from a site northeast of Alamosa.

Once soil replacement is finished, likely by early October, Phillips 66 will monitor groundwater purity at the site for two to four years before seeking to unload the property.

"Our goal is for Alamosa County to obtain the property," said Code Enforcement Officer Jinger Tilden. "Maybe we could utilize it as a park. There's been talk of turning it into an amphitheater."

The old refinery, which operated from the mid-1930s until a disabling fire in 1964, was well known locally as a site where drugs and crime ran rampant.

"They blamed it on the Devil," said County Commissioner Marianne Dunne, explaining the site's satanic nickname. "It was used for drug exchange and drug use. When they cleaned it up, they found lots of terrible paraphernalia."

The site lay dormant and derelict for nearly 50 years, in part because nobody could quite figure out who owned the site. Decades of oil company mergers and acquisitions clouded who was responsible for cleaning up the site, and nobody wanted to be left holding the bag.

Eventually, Conoco Phillips discovered they had inherited the site. Efforts to get the company to take action were frustrating, said Tilden.

"They would just give us the runaround," Tilden said. "One door after another would shut."

Conoco and Phillips severed ties in 2012, and Phillips 66 was unwittingly stuck with Devil's Playground.

"They didn't even have it listed as part of their property assets," said Tilden. "They didn't even know it existed."

Tilden said Phillips 66 responded quickly to her requests for cleanup.

"I got ahold of Becky Hesslen, and she was great," Tilden said. "She immediately got to work. She's been so good at making sure all my questions are answered in a timely fashion."

Phillips 66 contracted with St. Croix Environmental Inc., an environmental management consulting firm, to oversee the various subcontractors involved in abatement at the site. St. Croix hired largely local contractors to remove buildings, equipment, train cars, and foundations - many of which were heavily contaminated.

Only a few weeks remain in the active part of the project, which will conclude with regrading and reseeding the nearly 20-acre plot, said Kevin Miller, president of St. Croix Environmental.

"Kevin's invited us out several times with open arms to show us what the facility is looking like," Tilden said.

Hesslen said Phillips 66 will make monthly visits to the site for the next several years to monitor water quality in 45 groundwater wells.

"The monitoring is to make sure there's no oil in the river or downstream," Tilden said. "They haven't found any so far, probably because it's already set for so long. It's amazing what the earth can do."

The change in the site is nothing short of amazing, said Tilden.

"It used to be pretty hellacious if you ask me," Tilden said. "It was shocking."

After so many decades of neglect, Tilden was thankful for the rapid response by Phillips 66.

"It was gratifying," said Tilden. "I love it. It's so exciting how a simple phone call and a letter got the property cleaned up."