WYNNEWOOD — Beverly Badgley said she never worried about the massive 90-year-old oil refinery that looms at the edge of this rural town, despite the occasional fire, explosion or evacuation order.
The hulking structure of tanks, towers and tubes is part of the community fabric, its hisses, groans and roars a steady and familiar soundtrack to daily life.
“I never questioned the operation of it,” said Badgley, 53, a lifelong resident. “You assume that it is a good, safe place to work.”
For some who live here, those perceptions changed Sept. 28 when a boiler in the refinery exploded and killed two local workers, including Badgley's 34-year-old son, Billy Smith, a married father of four.
Also killed was Russell Mann, 45, of Wynnewood, who died at the OU Medical Center 18 days after the explosion. He left behind a wife, two sons and two granddaughters.
Now, some in this town of about 2,500 residents are voicing concerns about the refinery's new owner, a lax culture of safety, and whether some workers may be reluctant to complain for fear of losing their good-paying jobs or seeing the refinery that serves as the town's lifeblood close.
“The refinery is important to this town and it's important to these young families,” said Badgley, who also serves as the city clerk. “But it shouldn't be an either-or. We should be able to have that refinery and be able to send our kids and our friends and our neighbors down there and know they're working in as safe an environment as can be provided.”
A spokeswoman for Texas-based CVR Energy, Inc., the refinery owner, declined comment, citing an ongoing investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. An OSHA spokesman said such investigations can take up to six months.
Days after the explosion, company CEO Jack Lapinski issued a statement, saying CVR remained “committed to providing a safe working environment for our employees and contractors.”
In December, the company announced that an internal investigation had identified the cause of the explosion as a combination of human error and problems in operating procedures and training. The investigation found no mechanical problems with the boiler.
Wynnewood sits at the junction of U.S. Highway 77 and State Highway 29 in Garvin County, about 70 miles south of Oklahoma City.
The refinery, one of five operating in the state, has a 70,000 barrels-per-day capacity and produces gasoline, diesel fuel, military jet fuel, solvents and asphalt, according to the CVR website.
It is the largest and best-paying employer in the area, locals say, and provides a large percentage of the property taxes that fund the Wynnewood School District. And though it sits just outside Wynnewood's city boundary, the refinery generates a large percentage of the sales tax collected by local businesses.
The town's median family income is about $35,100, compared to $43,200 statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
There is no known plan to close or move the plant, but previous owners threatened to do so in the past, residents say.
“If it shut down, the town would still be here, but it wouldn't flourish like it is,'' said Mayor Mike Perry, while sitting in his City Hall office just blocks from the refinery's main gate. “The economy would certainly suffer.”
The refinery has had several accidents over the years, including five fires since 2006, and has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in OSHA fines. Several contractors also have been killed at the site, but it's been several decades since a local worker died on the job, local officials said.
“We know it's potentially dangerous. You learn to live with it,” said Perry, 66, also a lifelong resident.
Still, he acknowledged that September's explosion and the deaths of two men well known in the community created greater concern about the refinery than previous incidents.
“If you know somebody who dies in an accident, people are naturally going to be concerned with the safety of it,” Perry said.
Search for answers
The accident occurred at what was to have been the start of a scheduled major overhaul of the refinery that takes place about every four years. The “turnaround” was expected to take about 40 days. In addition to the normal “home crew” of about 270 employees, about 1,500 to 1,800 temporary subcontractors are on site during a turnaround, providing a big boost to the local economy.
At Trail's End BBQ & Grill, which sits within view of the refinery, owner Pam Kibler said the line of people at the order counter at lunch time would sometimes be 20 deep.
“We were pretty ragged by the time turnaround was done,” Kibler said.
The explosion happened about 6:20 p.m. on a Friday night when home crew members attempted to light the burner on a 60-year-old boiler.
Within hours, questions already were spreading about whether the accident could have been prevented and whether plant workers were still at risk in the nearly century-old refinery.
Among those asking was Shannon Kile, a reporter for the town's weekly newspaper, The Wynnewood Gazette. For decades, the newspaper has been a proud advocate of the refinery. Just below the newspaper's masthead are printed the words “Home of CVR Energy/Wynnewood Refining.”
“If we didn't have it, we'd have virtually nothing in this town,” Kile said.
In a series of front-page stories published over several weeks, Kile interviewed plant workers who asked to remain anonymous. They identified what they considered several safety problems at the refinery and questioned whether the new plant owners were putting profits over worker protection.
After first warning him against publishing any stories and then threatening to fire any workers he interviewed, CVR eventually stopped taking Kile's phone calls and pulled its advertising from the newspaper, Kile said.
Publisher Larry Russell said she believes CVR inherited many of its problems from the refinery's previous owners, who failed to make necessary upgrades. Russell pointed out that the refinery has long been a civic booster, supporting the town's annual PumpkinFest, providing college scholarships to local students and contributing to a host of other community activities.
“They're a corporate partner of this town and I want to make sure they have every chance to make things right,” Russell said. “You can't tear it down and run it off. The whole town would dry up.'”
The stories also caused a backlash from some residents, business leaders and refinery workers, especially when the newspaper published the names of several workers disciplined by the company in the wake of the explosion.
Russell told Kile not to write any more refinery stories for now.
“People are tired of it,'' Russell said. “They don't want to read about it anymore. They know what happened. They know what the families went through.”
Donna Bannister, 71, has been complaining about the refinery for years, including to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I've called them so many times they know me by my first name,” said Bannister, who's lived in the same block two miles from the refinery all her life. “I'm scared of the refinery and I think everyone else is, too.”
She said the recent deaths left many in the city angry, but reluctant to complain.
“If people talk and people keep pushing it, they're afraid the refinery will shut down,” she said. “People are so hungry for a job now, they're just not going to say this refinery is dangerous.”
Others, however, barely give the facility a second thought.
“You get a little refinery smell once in a while, but it smells like money,” said Ron Albreicht, 76, a retired oil-field worker who lives about a mile from the facility.
Albreicht said the deaths, while tragic, were the result of a simple truth.
“If you break the rules of physics it will kill you. And that's what happened here,” Albreicht said. “Somebody broke a rule somewhere, and it blew up. It was just doubly hard because the guys that died were from here. They were neighbors.”
LeeAnna Mann, 45, is convinced that safety shortfalls killed her husband, but said her complaints are stirring anger, mostly among spouses of refinery workers who worry the new owners will close or move the facility.
She and others have questioned why the boiler, which she said her husband called “the most feared at the plant,” did not have a more up-to-date automated system that would have allowed it to be lighted remotely.
“Reality says that every morning I wake and every night when I go to bed, my husband is dead and there's no changing that,” Mann said. “They can't give me spiritual help. They can't give me physical help. The only thing the refinery can do is provide financial help and the overall goal is to make sure this does not happen to anyone else … ever again.”
For a while, Badgley said she couldn't drive by the refinery where her son died. The memory was too painful.
“I respect it and I respect the guys that go in there everyday. They're feeding their families and doing what they need to live,” Badgley said.
Still, she wonders why procedures weren't in place that would have protected workers.
“We should be able to have a refinery and know that they're doing the right things to keep everybody who walks through those gates safe,” Badgley said. “If they can unequivocally say they are, I'm ready to say it's an accident, a terrible unfortunate accident, and move on. But that's the question.”