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Neighbors of Duncan Halliburton plant worry about soil, water contamination

Halliburton has spent more than $25 million dealing with contamination issues in Duncan, Oklahoma, but some area residents are unsatisfied.
by Brianna Bailey Modified: March 16, 2014 at 10:00 pm •  Published: March 16, 2014

“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.

by Brianna Bailey
Business Writer
Brianna Bailey has lived in Idaho, Germany and Southern California, but Oklahoma is her adopted home. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and has worked at several newspapers in Oklahoma and Southern...
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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.


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