What daily life is like next to the Ea­gle In­dus­tries Su­per­fund site

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY JUSTIN WINGERTER Staff Writer jwingerter@ok­la­homan.com

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.

Fund­ing con­cerns

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.

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