CUSHING — It's like a child's first Christmas.
That's how Melvin Morris Jr., 54, describes driving into this town without being instantly overwhelmed by the rancid smell from refinery waste that plagued his childhood.
It took decades and millions of dollars to get Cushing smelling clean again.
Land O'Lakes, the Minnesota-based company known for its butter, has spent the past year removing lead, arsenic, asbestos and other harmful materials that for more than 20 years have been sitting at an abandoned refinery site on the edge of town.
The company and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are on track to have the cleanup mostly completed this fall.
Cleanups like these can take a long time.
In the 30 years since the federal Superfund program was created, only about 340 of the country's more than 1,600 Superfund sites have been cleaned enough to be removed from the agency's National Priorities List of the most-hazardous contaminated areas.
The Cushing site has been on the list since July 1999, a short time compared to some sites that have languished since the early 1980s.
The Cushing cleanup couldn't come soon enough for Morris.
“For me, it's going to be like, finally, someone else stepped in to eradicate this problem,” he said. “To see green grass on that property will be a big improvement for our community.”
The Hudson Refinery's towers have for years served as a discomforting, foreboding entrance to town.
“It was not only an eyesore, but it was a reminder of the health risks that might be present,” said Cushing City Manager Steve Spears, who has lived in Cushing about 30 years.
They were the first structures visible on the flat horizon as people approached the city from the west on State Highway 33, which eventually becomes Cushing's Main Street.
Two small refineries opened in the early 1920s in Cushing.
The refineries produced gasoline, diesel and other fuels. They changed hands and expanded several times over the years until becoming one large refinery owned and operated by Hudson Oil Co.
In 1984, during the oil bust, Hudson filed for bankruptcy and closed its Cushing refinery. It was abandoned, but the damage was done.
Scattered across the 200-acre site were stained soils, contaminated water, acid, lead, asbestos-tainted materials and an unlined pond that held several feet of black coke tar, a thick refining byproduct.
“When the refinery equipment was in place and deteriorating, there was definitely a health risk,” said Laura Stankosky, the EPA's project manager for the site.