Imaging a Shattering Earth: Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate
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Helms Gravel Pit, Sparks, Nevada

The demise of the area surrounding what was known from 1967 to the 1990s as Helms Gravel Pit, Sparks, Nevada, first began in the late 1800s when a rail yard, serving as a major east-to-west pass for railroad traffic, was built 4200 feet east of the pit. In 1957, this area also became a fuel storage and distribution facility. The fuel was transported by a large pipeline that ran from San Francisco Bay over the Sierra Mountains. By 1987, the pipeline and rail yard terminal tank farm began to leak oil, which spread to the high ground water flowing into Helms Gravel Pit. These contaminants involved gasoline solvents, diesel fuels, chlorinated solvents, and free product.

Prone to inundations, Helms Gravel Pit needed constant dewatering via a series of pumps. The pumps extracted between six and seven million gallons of water per day and redirected this water towards the Truckee River. By November 1988, the source of the oil leak was identified as the nearby tank farm. Off-site investigation proved to be tough due to the reluctance of the companies involved.

In early 1991, a recovery system to capture the free product was eventually designed and put in place in the rail yard. Groundwater extraction system, soil vapor extraction and treatment systems, and many other extensive treatments and decontaminating systems were used to treat the affected area.

The consequences of this pollution have proven costly for the responsible companies. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) filed a civil action against ten of them. According to the terms of the settlement, each of the ten companies must pay ten million dollars to the state of Nevada over a ten-year period, in addition to cleaning up the impacted soil and groundwater in accordance with the state’s standards. Helms Gravel Pit has since been reinvented as Sparks Marina Park.

Selected Bibliography

“Sparks Solvent/Fuel Site.” Nevada Division of Environmental Protection Bureau of Corrective Actions. Weblink.

Helms Gravel Pit, Sparks, Nevada Pictures in the Gallery