Oklahoma town suing over contamination

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By Judy Welch
April 17, 2008 - 3:24:44 pm

An environmental cleanup?class action lawsuit was filed Monday in Kay County District Court on behalf of the residents of Blackwell, Okla. against the companies that now own the Blackwell Zinc Smelter.

The lawsuit alleges the town of approximately 7,200 people is contaminated by 58 million pounds of toxic waste, including lead, arsenic, cadmium and zinc, left behind by the smelting activities. The smelter was in operation in Blackwell from 1916 to 1974. It occupied 80 acres and employed 1,000 people.

Blackwell is about 31 miles southwest of Arkansas City.

"The contamination of Blackwell represents a public health crisis," said Nelson Roach, a partner with Nix, Patterson & Coach and an attorney representing the plaintiffs. "Past and current attempts to remediate this town haven't cleaned up the problem - they've covered up the problem. The children of this community are going to continue to be at risk until these companies are forced to remove this contamination properly."

The suit was filed by Bob Coffey, Loretta Corn, and Larry and Mary Ellen Jones, individually, "and on behalf of all others similarly situated" against Phelps Dodge Corporation and its parent company Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc.

"This litigation is unwarranted, unfortunate and unnecessary," said Steve Lewis, spokesman for Phelps Dodge in Oklahoma. "Phelps Dodge has been working as a responsible corporate citizen with the city and federal and state environmental authorities to clean up Blackwell since the company acquired the site in 1999. Phelps Dodge is providing the community with free soil testing and, where necessary, free cleanup to the standards established by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ)."

Contaminated sand from the smelter was used by the community for road paving, landfill and other public and private uses. Zinc, arsenic, lead and cadmium has contaminated nearby bodies of water and groundwater.

The toxic chemicals continue to wash into the Chikaskia River as well as community trails, sidewalks, rights-of-way, parks and playgrounds, the petition alleges. Current and past efforts at cleanup have been inadequate and have provided residents with a false sense of security, the plaintiffs claim.

More than 76 percent of Blackwell homes tested in 2006 contained interior dust with lead levels exceeding the EPA's safety standards while more than 90 percent of the homes contained levels of arsenic exceeding safety standards.

The groundwater is polluted with cadmium at a level 4,200 times higher than the EPA's allowable amount. Blood tests show that 30 percent of Blackwell's children have enough lead in their blood to cause brain damage. Lead poisoning is linked to learning disabilities, seizures and neurological problems, according to the petition.

"Phelps Dodge's goal is to test all the properties in Blackwell and remediate those that need it," Lewis said. "The company remains committed to working with the Blackwell community and state officials to continue these efforts."

The plaintiffs seek comprehensive property remediation and a court-supervised medical monitoring program for the town's residents. They also want the proceeds from a proposed water treatment plant to go to clean-up and not the company, and compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.

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