BLACKWELL — Blackwell Zinc Co. paid one of the best wages in Kay County before environmental problems and contamination concerns closed it in 1974. Now some residents here are entitled to one last payday — this time for damages caused by the smelter operation.
In January, Blackwell property owners received a 16-page letter notifying them that a nearly $119 million agreement has been reached in their class-action lawsuit. The settlement would allow for about $70 million in payments to landowners and for additional environmental cleanup.
The lawsuit was filed after 38 years of promises to clean up the site by larger companies that bought out Blackwell Zinc Co. The city of Blackwell in 2009, along with property owners, sued its current owner Arizona-based Freeport-McMoRan Cooper & Gold Inc., holding the company responsible for contamination to the groundwater supply and soil.
The city of Blackwell in February 2010 accepted a $54 million settlement from the company.
Attorneys in the lawsuit say about 4,000 property owners would receive checks for $500 to $7,000 if the settlement agreement in the class-action suit is approved by a judge in March. The first round of payments could go out as soon as June.
“If this settlement goes through, I think people in Blackwell can finally get the legacy of their town being a smelter community behind them,” plaintiffs' attorney Nelson Roach said.
Some call deal ‘a joke'
Not everyone is satisfied with the agreement.
Lawrence Self called the agreement “a joke,” and said numerous property owners plan to protest to the judge.
Self, 72, has had to cap a well on his property, because the state Department of Environmental Quality determined the underground water is polluted by the old zinc operation.
“The lawyers in the lawsuit are getting millions of dollars, and the people here are the ones who have had to live with it for all these years,” Self said. “There are a lot of unhappy people here in Blackwell.”
Ronnie Corn, 72, plans to consult his own attorney before he agrees to accept any settlement. Corn, of Broken Arrow, grew up in Blackwell. He owns nine rent houses there, and several of them had contaminated soil.
“I don't want to just take what they offer and end up getting the shaft,” Corn said.
Gone but not forgotten
A poster-size, black-and-white image of the zinc smelter hangs in Bob's Grill in downtown Blackwell. Most of the plant's buildings were torn down when it closed almost 40 years ago, but the lawsuit has kept it a frequent topic of conversation in the busy cafe.
Barbara Spears, 73, said when she was growing up in Blackwell, everyone wanted to work at the smelter because it paid the best wages in the area. During its peak, it employed about 1,000 people.
“We considered those people that worked there rich,” Spears said. “Back then, everyone was more concerned with making a living. No one really thought about what it was doing to the town, or any long-erm affect.”
Its wages were triple what others were paying, said Owen Dickerson, of Blackwell.
Dickerson, 81, worked around the 2,700-degree furnaces from 1960 to 1974. He said the jobs were backbreaking and dangerous, but its four-hour work days gave men time for a second job or to farm.
“A lot of guys are still alive today, because it shut down,” Dickerson said. “I saw several die from the heat. I carried a couple of them out myself.”
Dickerson said he'd be entitled to a settlement in the class-action lawsuit but doubts he'll pursue it.
“I don't want to get mixed up in a lawsuit,” he said. “I'd just soon let it pass.”
Freeport-McMoRan has been working for the past several years with state and federal regulatory agencies to address the historic environmental issues, including implementing soil and ground water remedies adopted by DEQ, company spokesman Jim Telle said.
He said the company will continue its active soil testing and replacement program and operation of its groundwater treatment plant.
The plant was built to extract the polluted groundwater in the plume underneath the city, separate contaminants and flush the treated water into a nearby river.
Contaminated soil is dug up and transferred by dump truck to a fenced yard where the smelter plant once stood and then taken to a landfill to be properly disposed.
The city's settlement
City council members established the Blackwell Industrial Authority to oversee its settlement proceeds, which mostly have been invested in stocks and bonds, City Manager Mark Stiles said.
According to the trust indenture, 85 percent of the investment revenue is to be used for capital improvement projects in Blackwell.
“It's like a university endowment,” Skiles said. “The money will be there for perpetuity, so its positive effects on Blackwell will never go away.”
Skiles said more importantly, the town is recovering from its reputation of being a polluted community and can attract new business, industry and jobs.
“I think people in Blackwell and across the state need to know that we have the safest water in the state,” Skiles said.
“This is not a smelter town anymore.”