What daily life is like next to the Eagle Industries Superfund site
MIDWEST CITY — By the mid-1990s, Dorothy Wormington knew something was wrong.
The well water she used daily — to drink, to bathe in, to wash clothes and dishes — had a stark, chemical scent. Her barber asked about the smell of her hair. Relatives noticed it when they visited.
“Mother was put through hell,” recalls her son, Pete Wormington.
Widowed and alone, she continued to drink the water, to bathe in it, to wash with it. She would wonder aloud whether it was making her sick. Her husband had died in the home of cancer. Her brother-in-law had spent years there, grown sick and died of cancer. Then she got sick. It was cancer.
By the waning years of her life, she was too sick to leave her home. She cared for a small garden in the backyard, giving life to vegetables as her own life was leaving her. It was her only solace.
“She loved that yard and growing her vegetables,” said Linda Wormington, a daughter-inlaw.
Dorothy Wormington died in 2010 of liver cancer, seven years after the state of Oklahoma determined what she had long suspected. Her water was contaminated. Eagle Industries, a nearby industrial shop, had illegally dumped trichloroethylene, a cancercausing chemical known
as TCE, into the soil and groundwater.
For nearly 50 years, the Wormington family has owned property near Midwest City’s southern border with Oklahoma City, a quiet, semirural section of this blue-collar town where wells provide the water. Eagle, which also sits on the border, is now an EPA Superfund site and the water is contaminated by its repeated violations of the law.
Some residents here are stuck in the middle. Away from a clean water source and in the path of ever-flowing contamination.
“Our folks were hardworking people,” Pete Wormington said of his parents. “They worked hard to get those properties there. It’s piss-poor that the properties they worked so hard for aren’t worth anything. They would roll in their grave.”
Seven months after Dorothy Wormington’s death, a test of groundwater near her home found TCE levels were 2,020 micrograms per liter. The federal limit for safe drinking water is five micrograms per liter.
‘It will spread out’
Dig through 50 feet of polluted soil under Eagle Industries and you will find the area’s premier source of fresh groundwater, 900 feet deep and spanning 3,000 square miles. The Garber-Wellington Formation, a complex structure of thick sandstone beds, dates to the Permian period, which ended 252 million years ago.
That water is forever moving, as liquids do, from higher ground to lower ground. Because the north side of SE 29, where Eagle is located, is slightly higher than the south side of the street, the company’s pollution has largely traveled south.
“TCE doesn’t stay in soil very long,” said Amy Brittain, an environmental programs manager at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. “It likes to sink down into the aquifer and groundwater underneath the facility. Once it gets into that groundwater, it will spread out.”
The Oklahoman compiled results of more than a hundred groundwater tests over two decades and found an underground plume of contamination once centered below Eagle has migrated nearly a quartermile south, threatening the drinking water of residents previously unaffected.
Just across the street from Eagle is an auto shop, Davis Paint and Collision. Water wells there were free of dangerous contaminants as late as 2006 and contained only trace contamination as late as 2013. But tests last year found TCE levels at more than 20 times the federal limit. In a bathroom sink, levels were 12 times the federal limit. The company uses bottled water.
Southwest of the Superfund site sits a small white home at 10800 SE 29. In 2003, water wells there were clean. By 2006, trace amounts of TCE had arrived. By 2013, dangerous levels of TCE were found. The next year, TCE was five times the federal limit. The Environmental Protection Agency arranged for it to be connected to a city water supply.
A well at 3101 S Westminster Road, about 600 feet southeast of Eagle as the crow flies, tested clean in 2003 and 2010 but contained trace amounts of TCEby 2016 and 2017.
In a strange twist, migrating pollution has granted residents nearest to Eagle a reprieve. A home just west of the Superfund site is less contaminated now than it was in 2003, when TCE contamination there was 29 times the federal limit for safe drinking water. In 2016, the home tested below the federal limit for the first time, though TCE remains. Homes nearest to Eagle have been connected to the city’s water supply.
The contamination’s apparent slow migration is a positive sign that DEQ will have time to conduct an investigation and clean the plume before it spreads much farther. But there is cause for concern. Because TCE sinks ever downward over time, the 60-foot testing wells currently in place are not giving investigators a complete picture of the threat.
“This is why we’re trying to get some money to do some more investigation,” Brittain said. “From what we know about the geology and that area ... our 60-foot wells are probably not deep enough. We probably need to go deeper to see what’s really going on.”
The deepest testing well in the area is at Davis Paint and Collision. That well recorded the worst contamination last year.
‘I’m not concerned’
Outside Lana Burgess’s well-kept white home southeast of the Superfund site is a sign advertising fresh eggs, laid by chickens Burgess raises in her backyard. She has lived
here for 52 years. Her children, now grown, would hunt deer in thick timber across the street. Coyotes still cry out through the trees.
“I’m not concerned,” she says of the contamination. “I’m too old to sit and worry about things like that. I just want to live out my life in peace.”
Burgess’s water well has been tested and found to contain no TCE thus far. She’s heard many rumors about the direction it’s moving but few hard facts. Like many of her neighbors, Burgess believes the government has kept her in the dark.
“We haven’t been told anything, really,” said another resident of Westminster Road, who recently began using bottled water but continues to cook with groundwater.
A man who lives along SE 29 Street worries whether his dogs’ health could be harmed by the contamination. He and his wife grew a garden in their backyard but discontinued it after learning of the pollution last year from news accounts.
“As far as I know, we haven’t had any problems. Me and the wife, we have health problems but I think that’s just being old,” he said with a laugh.
“We’re not planning on moving, so hopefully we don’t have to worry about it.”
Residents south of Eagle have been affected by circumstances out of their control, constantly caught in the middle. They are in Oklahoma City but ingesting the pollution of Midwest City. Unlike newer, ritzier subdivisions in the area, their homes are connected to groundwater, not city water. They are too rural to be near water lines but urban enough to be harmed by industrial waste.
Last February, officials from Oklahoma City and DEQ met with the residents to offer them an opportunity to connect to city water. There was a catch, however. The area is considered a private development and the city cannot legally cover the costs of providing water to a private development. The residents would have to pay for the infrastructure.
“They have not been really responsive to what we put on the table,” said Jennifer McClintock, a spokeswoman for the city’s utilities department. “So, since that time, we’ve not really heard anything back from them.”
There were financing options; bureaucratic maneuvers to lessen the financial burden on residents. Still, the cost would have been “pretty considerable,” McClintock said. “We could help them finance that but they’ve not been responsive to it.”
Homes just east and west of Eagle Industries were connected to Midwest City water years ago. A Midwest City spokesperson said it hasn’t connected polluted homes on the Oklahoma City side to its water but will assist fellow governments if asked to.
Though TCE contamination has largely moved south, there have been outliers. On Roefan Road, northeast of Eagle, a water well tested positive for TCE in August, though the amount of TCE was below the federal limit for safe drinking water.
Residents along Roefan Road and elsewhere northeast of Eagle have petitioned Midwest City for water lines connecting their homes to city water. But when told of the cost, they too balked at paying a price to avoid contamination they played no role in producing.
On Jan. 9, the EPA added Eagle to its National Priorities List for Superfund sites, granting DEQ authority to begin the lengthy cleanup process. The first step in that process is an investigation to determine where, exactly, the TCE is and how best to rid the area of it. With EPA funds, DEQ will hire engineering firms to dig deeper wells.
“Our focus here at DEQ has been that drinking water,” said Brittain. “That’s probably not going to change anytime soon. We’re still committed to sampling wells while we’re waiting for EPA funding.”
Due to federal budget constraints, it’s not known when that funding will arrive. Jennah Durant, an EPA spokeswoman, said, “EPA is currently operating under a continuing resolution and cannot speculate on future funding at this time.”
Meanwhile, DEQ is asking anyone who lives within a half-mile of Eagle and uses well water to call the agency and have their well tested. Records show residents as far as two miles away have requested — and received — water tests. Groundwater nearest to the Superfund site is tested four times a year.
“We’re concerned about the drinking water,” Brittain said. “That’s why we’re doing quarterly sampling. That’s our first concern and we need to make sure that nobody’s drinking unsafe water.”
A house southeast of Eagle Industries is seen Feb. 1 in Midwest City.
Dorothy Wormington, of Midwest City, is seen in an undated photo.
Eagle Industries, a closed business in Midwest City and a Superfund cleanup site, is located between Post Road and Westminster at 10901 SE 29.