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.
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.