DUNCAN — It was a mystery to Quail Drive resident Voris “PeeWee” Owens why the fish died in his pond filled with the clear, fresh drinking water from his well.
“The next morning, there they were — I could see all their white bellies,” Owens, 73, recalls.
For years, Owens flooded his vegetable garden with the abundant, sweet-tasting water from the well. For 25 years, he and wife Charlotte drank the well water at their brick ranch house on Quail Drive.
“We thought it was good water,” Charlotte Owens said. “It tasted good — we just didn’t know what was in it.”
The Owens’ house is a half-mile west of the old Halliburton Co. plant off Osage Road on the north side of Duncan. It’s a semi-rural area on the north side of Duncan near U.S. 81. Before perchlorate contamination was discovered in groundwater around the plant, most residents were not hooked up to the municipal water system and relied on private wells.
Halliburton has spent more than $25 million in response to the pollutants found at the Osage Road plant, according to regulatory filings. The company has spent millions of dollars to extend the municipal water supply to residents with contaminated water and continues to pay residents’ water bills in the area. Halliburton has also spent at least $4.3 million purchasing at least 15 houses from residents in the area around where water contamination has been discovered, property records show.
The company has agreed to work with state officials to investigate the contamination and clean it up. But some area residents still think Halliburton hasn’t done enough.
The Osage Road plant is surrounded with a seven-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and beyond it lies a dense wall of gnarled scrub oak trees. No trespassing signs are posted at various intervals along the road.
Some Duncan residents say they can recall seeing a large black cloud hanging overhead on days when Halliburton would burn things in open pits off Osage Road. Records show Halliburton burned reactive waste at the Osage Road site back in July 1991.
Today, Owens keeps all of his pill bottles in a gallon-size bag in his yellow kitchen on Quail Drive. The prescriptions include medication for hypothyroidism. Charlotte Owens has liver and colon cancer.
PeeWee Owens blames the well water and Halliburton for his dead fish, for his wife’s cancer and all the pills he takes.
Duncan City Councilman Ritchie Dennington, whose district includes part of the area where perchlorate was found, thinks that Halliburton has done a lot to address the water problems at Osage Road, but some of his constituents feel that no amount of money can repair the damage.
“When you feel like your water is contaminated, it’s such a personal thing — I don’t know if Halliburton could have done any more than they already have,” Dennington said. “But I can see both sides of it — it’s just a tragedy.”
In a written response to The Oklahoman’s questions about Osage Road, Halliburton said, “We continue to work under the supervision of ODEQ (the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality), and in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to address the environmental issues associated with the site. Otherwise, Halliburton does not comment on active litigation.”
Halliburton entered into an agreement to voluntarily clean up the Osage Road site in 2011 with the Department of Environmental Quality. The agency has not issued any fines against Halliburton because the company has agreed to study contamination at the site and pay for clean up, said Erin Hatfield, a spokeswoman for DEQ.
“It is always an option for DEQ to issue fines or take action against a company if they do not follow the cleanup plans or demonstrate progress in the cleanup process,” Hatfield said. “Currently, DEQ has no intention of doing so because Halliburton is working with us and providing all the information requested and are making progress in cleaning up the site.”
In 2011, Halliburton disclosed that it had found ammonium perchlorate in residential water wells around the closed plant in north Duncan, where the company had carried out Cold War-era defense contract work to clean fuel from spent missile casings. Ashes from the burned rocket fuel waste was stored in an evaporation pond on the site that was unlined until the late 1980s, records show.
Perchlorate is a type of salt used in some of rocket fuels. The substance is not harmful in small quantities, but has been known to cause some health problems including hypothyroidism in larger doses over longer periods of time. Hypothyroidism is caused when the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone. Symptoms of the condition include fatigue, shortness of breath and poor memory and concentration.
Low levels of radioactivity also have been found in the soil on the Osage Road site from a contract Halliburton had in the 1980s to attempt to clean metal racks that held fuel rods from a nuclear power plant in Nebraska. The state Department of Environmental Quality says the contamination is confined to the site and not a danger to residents in the surrounding area.
The Owens are plaintiffs in one of several ongoing lawsuits against Halliburton over the perchlorate and radioactive material found in the soil and water around Osage Road. Their attorney, Todd Ommen from the New York City-based law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, said he could not comment on the litigation because settlement negotiations with Halliburton are ongoing.-
Correspondence between Halliburton and the Oklahoma State Department of Health shows that Halliburton knew about the perchlorate at the Osage Road site as early as 1988. Emails between Halliburton and Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality officials also show that although Halliburton was required by an agreement with the department to monitor the groundwater at Osage Road and give regular reports to the state, there was no testing and no reports were submitted between 2005 and 2009.
Emails between Department of Environmental Quality employees indicate that Halliburton was aware of the need for perchlorate testing in August 2008 — nearly three years before Halliburton disclosed the perchlorate contamination to area residents. The emails were submitted as exhibits in one of the lawsuits against Halliburton.
“They have been having groundwater problems with nitrates, but that might actually be perchlorates because they burned a lot of rocket fuel in the past,” Ray Roberts, Environmental Programs Manager for DEQ, wrote in an email. “Marc Spenser, Halliburton’s environmental guy, thinks they need to go back and reassess things because perchlorates apparently weren’t tested for.”
In a letter to the state Health Department dated Aug. 9, 1988, that has been filed as evidence as in one of the ongoing lawsuits against Halliburton, the company’s attorneys wrote that well water tests at the Osage Road plant from the area around burn pits and a holding lagoon found 2.5 parts per million of perchlorate ion —that’s 2,500 parts per billion, or more than 166 times the current EPA health advisory level of 15 parts per billion. The water and ashes from burned rocket fuel in the holding lagoon — an unlined earthen pit — had been allowed to filter through the surrounding rock and soil since 1962, according to the letter.
“We are not aware of any migration of this ion to other wells in the area,” Halliburton’s attorneys said in the letter. The letter went on to outline plans to clean the holding pit of perchlorate residue and put in a liner to prevent further leaching into the soil.
Since 2011, testing has found 28 residential wells in the area around Osage Road with concentrations of perchlorate greater that the EPA health advisory level of 15 parts per billion, according to the Department of Environmental Quality. An additional 27 residential wells found perchlorate at levels greater than 2 parts per billion, but lower than federal advisory levels.
Calvin and Fay Sweat have owned a home on a large acreage off Osage Road for 47 years, half a mile from the Halliburton Osage Road site on N 5th Street. Since testing in 2011 found high levels of perchlorate in the water, Halliburton has purchased many of their neighbor’s homes, including the house next door to the Sweats.
“You can drive around and count the empty houses,” Calvin Sweat said.
White pickups bearing the Halliburton logo make hourly security checks at the vacant homes and lawns are kept neatly trimmed.
It’s easy to tell what homes Halliburton has purchased from the signs that read “Posted: Private property,” in the area around Osage Road, Calvin Sweat said.
A tally of county records shows Halliburton since 2011 has purchased at least 15 houses and parcels of land in the area near Osage Road, spending at least $4.3 million. Many of the sellers agreed to drop all claims against Halliburton as condition of the property sales, according to property records.
The Sweats had their well water tested for perchlorate, but the results showed only low levels of the substance — not enough for the company to offer the semi-retired couple a settlement, the Sweats said.
Still, Calvin Sweat takes medication for hypothyroidism. He believes an underactive thyroid caused him to suffer depression, anxiety and insomnia for several years. He also believes the ailments were caused by drinking water from the Sweat’s private well before Halliburton disclosed the perchlorate contamination.
“I don’t expect to get a lot of money out of it, but I don’t think they deserve to get off scot-free either,” Fay Sweat said. “It’s not just money — this is our lives. We live here.”
The Sweats say they have considered trying to sell their property, but Halliburton appears to be the only potential buyer. Perchlorate contamination in the area has scared away other potential buyers, Fay Sweat said.
“You couldn’t sell a house out here — nobody would even appraise it,” she said.
The Sweats are plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits against Halliburton. Their attorney in Tulsa, David Page, did not return a call for comment. Several of the Sweat’s co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit recently settled their claims against the company out of court and dropped out of the litigation, records show.
Barbara Wilkinson, who owns a home on Quail Drive just down the street from the Owens, said she too cannot sell her home.
“I called a Realtor and he just laughed at me and said ‘you couldn’t give your house away,’” Wilkinson said.
Wilkerson said she would like Halliburton to buy her home so she can leave Duncan, but her hopes for a resolution are fading nearly three years after Halliburton first disclosed the perchlorate problem.
“They don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do — they have enough money and lawyers, they can make it eventually all go away,” Wilkerson said. “It’s Halliburton, they do what they want to do.”
As of December 2012, Halliburton estimated its expenses reached $25 million in its initial response to the contamination found in the water and soil off of Osage Road, the company disclosed in a regulatory filing. The company declined to provide a more up-to-date tally of its expenses.
Halliburton has paid about $1.6 million to have a Duncan municipal water line extended to about 90 homes in the area, said Scott Vaughn, Duncan public works director.
“They basically gave us a map and said ‘we want to get city water to this particular set of points on the map,’” Vaughn said. “I don’t know how that was decided.”
Halliburton has also been paying the water bills for all of the homes in the area that it paid to have hooked up to city water.
“I don’t think there is any definitive time limit for them to stop doing that — they will continue to pay that until further notice,” he said.
Cases of bottled water are stacked on porches and in garages at some of the houses on Quail Drive. Before Halliburton paid to have residents on the street hooked up to the city water line, the company regularly delivered pallets of bottled water.
Although Halliburton has hooked up the Owenses’ house to the municipal water line and the company continues to pay their water bill, Charlotte Owens can’t stomach Duncan city water, which she says has a strong mineral aftertaste.
“It tastes terrible — you can’t even drink it,” she said.
1960s: Halliburton begins work as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense cleaning solid fuel from missile motor casing at its Osage Road site in North Duncan. The fuel was disposed of by burning in open pits, according to documents from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.
1983-1985: With a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Halliburton attempts to clean radioactive contamination from metal racks once used to hold spent fuel rods from the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station in Nebraska. Residents claim in several lawsuits that the the racks were processed in open-air tents at the site, allowing radioactive material to escape into the air and soil.
1991: Records show Halliburton burned material in open pits at Osage Road as recently as July 1991.
1993-1995: Halliburton’s plans to close the Osage Road site are approved under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines in March 1993 and received closure certification in May 1995. Water tests from the Osage Road site showed levels of nitrate and chlorides above maximum guidelines for drinking water.
2011: Testing shows high levels of ammonium perchlorate in 28 residential water wells on the north side of Duncan around the Osage Road site. Residents file several lawsuits against Halliburton, claiming the company knew about the contamination at Osage Road for years, but failed to warn residents or conduct adequate water testing. Halliburton pays to have bottled water delivered to residents in affected areas.
2012: Halliburton pays $2.5 million to extend a city water line on the north side of Duncan to areas where testing showed perchlorate in residential water wells. The company says in a regulatory filing that it has spent more than $25 million in its initial response to the problems on Osage Road.
2014: Although litigation is still ongoing, Halliburton has settled with numerous residents. The company has purchased at least 15 houses in the area around Osage Road, property records show.