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 mess 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. “While there may have been a fence around the site, there is always the issue of trespassers and the potential for contaminants to leave the site.” The cleanup Cushing Middle School students in 1998 started a letter-writing campaign asking the government to investigate the refinery site. The letters caught the attention of the EPA. That year, the agency did an emergency removal of asbestos and dismantled the rusted towers. Residents near the refinery were evacuated the week before Christmas while the EPA removed 6,000 gallons of hydrofluoric acid left in a tank in case the refinery reopened. The site was added to Superfund's National Priorities List in 1999. In January 2009, the EPA ordered Land O'Lakes, under the Superfund law, to pay for the cleanup despite having never run the refinery. Land O'Lakes became the EPA's “potentially responsible party” for the cleanup since it merged in 1981 with a former owner, Midland Cooperatives, and the most recent owner, Hudson Oil Co., no longer exists. The location became a Superfund site in 1999. “At the time of the merger, Land O'Lakes did not know, and could not have known, that the refinery was a Superfund site,” Jeanne Forbis, a spokeswoman for Land O'Lakes, wrote in an e-mail. “Land O'Lakes continues to dispute the extent to which it is responsible for cleanup expenses at the site.” The company is performing the cleanup because of its “corporate citizenship and environmental stewardship principles” and will “defer to the future the dispute over Land O'Lakes' alleged liability,” Forbis wrote. Backhoes and heavy machines have been driving in and out of the site every weekday since spring. After the cleanup is complete, all the contaminated material from the site will be taken to a specially permitted landfill, said Byron Starns, the project coordinator and an attorney for Land O'Lakes. The site also will be given a makeover, including the replanting of grasses and mowing. Spears, the city manager, hopes to see the land become useful again. “If the refinery were still up and running and providing jobs to the community, that would be the community's preference, but once it shut down and it was clear it wouldn't be opened back up, everyone was glad it was removed,” he said.