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 every day. 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.”