Environmental Lesson

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If anyone here is still under the illusion that energy companies will always automatically do the right thing when it comes to the environment, look no further than the massive, historic $5.5 billion cleanup settlement arising from actions by Oklahoma’s former Kerr-McGee Corporation.

The settlement was announced last Thursday by the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the settlement, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum, which purchased Kerr-McGee in 2006, would pay the massive cleanup amount to restore polluted sites dating back to 1928. It’s the largest pollution cleanup settlement ever.

Before Kerr-McGee was sold in 2006, according to the DOJ, it spun off the polluted assets into a company called Tronox and that company was left insolvent and couldn’t afford the cleanup. One U.S. Attorney called it a “corporate shell game,” designed to evade responsibility for the pollution, which includes uranium mines in New Mexico and Arizona.

Kerr-McGee was also the focus of legal and media scrutiny after state resident Karen Silkwood died in 1974. Silkwood worked at Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication site near Crescent. Silkwood, a labor union activist, was allegedly contaminated by the plutonium manufactured at the plant. She died in a mysterious car accident, and a movie starring Meryl Streep and Cher about her life was released in 1983.

Kerr-McGee, once located in downtown Oklahoma City, was lauded in this brainwashing newspaper article published in The Oklahoman in 1999. The article, which never mentions the Silkwood saga or the company’s pollution legacy, begins, “World-class, generous, involved, leaders, company with a heart - words used by Oklahoma City officials and citizens to describe one of their most respected neighbors, Kerr-McGee Corp.” A few years later after this glowing tribute, the “world-class” company was sold to Anadarko, based in Texas.

A larger lesson here is that the Kerr-McGee case gives us every reason to reasonably suspect that energy companies are quite capable of doing massive harm to the environment while trying to evade responsibility for it. That suspicion is why we need strict state and federal regulations governing their operations and an intense focus on developing cleaner, renewable energy sources.

The anti-EPA sentiment in this state, fueled by conservative political dogma and The Oklahoman, is widely misplaced and a major historical error.

Oklahoma is currently experiencing a boom in natural gas production because of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a drilling process tied to water pollution and now earthquakes. Does the $5.5 billion settlement send a clear enough message to oil and gas companies here or will history repeat itself once again?