Right in My Back Yard… A View from a Rimby’s Window

I became an inadvertent environmental lawyer in 1988 when my supervising attorney plunked a foot-high stack of paper on my desk (sorry, youngsters, paper was the medium) and asked me to decipher the CERCLA/Superfund statute – “one of our clients has been sued under this law,” he said, “we need to know what it means.”  The site turned out to be the Hardage-Criner Superfund Site in Criner, Oklahoma.  Hardage/Criner Superfund Site – Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

Years later I could see a Superfund site from my office window (the same window that visibly bowed in then out with the explosive wave from the Murrah Federal Building bombing).  The Double Eagle Refinery re-refined used oil, recycling approximately 500,000 gallons of used motor oil each month.  The process used sulfuric acid and bleaching clays to separate the oil from the heavy tars, generating roughly 80,000 gallons of corrosive and toxic sludge each month.  Early-on, contaminated sludges were sent to an off-site state-approved industrial waste disposal facility that became the Hardage Superfund Site.  Later sludges were placed in on-site impoundments and a sludge lagoon. The features of the Double Eagle Superfund Site included

  • Above-ground concrete-walled outdoor vats with oil inches deep floating on collected rainwater beckoning birds to land on the shiny surface.
  • One large “lagoon” of acid-soaked diatomaceous earth used for filtering impurities out of used oil.  It looked solid enough to walk across, but it was rumored that a horse jumped in that lagoon and disintegrated, leaving only floating bones.  Folks joked that it might be a good place to dispose of … well, use your imagination.
  • A dozen or so large silos with years of tank bottoms filling their bases.
  • And a pervasive petroleum aroma that … “Ya’ll smell that?  It’s the smell of money!”

It was easy to walk the site – some loose chain link fencing purported to keep people out, and regulators suggested that if every lawyer who visited the site would just walk away with his/her briefcase filled with a shovel of the detritus, the site would be cleaned up in no time.

I learned a lot during my tour of duty as a Double Eagle “Superfund Lawyer.”  I met other Superfund Lawyers –– we are a breed, you know, flocking around federal courthouses and abandoned properties, frequently accompanied by engineers and regulators (discreet breeds of their own).

I learned about in-situ remediation of a sludge lagoon and the benefits of attempting such remediation at night during a muggy Oklahoma summer…chemical clouds inadvertently rising from the fabled lagoon managed to steal away into the night, noticed only by the few engineers attempting the midnight feat.

And I learned that birds coated with the same shiny floating oil that attracted them were sent to “the bird lady” at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., who could tell the species (and whether it was listed or endangered) simply by looking at remnants of feathers.  When I was writing this blog I found her – Roxie Laybourne (now deceased) – Meet Roxie Laybourne, the Feather Detective Who Changed Aviation | At the Smithsonian| Smithsonian Magazine.  (Be sure to follow the link to see Roxie, her Smithsonian crew, and her birds!)

The site has been cleaned up for a few years now (National Priorities List, final deletion date August 21, 2008) – and hides out disguised as a green field just northeast of Bricktown – Oklahoma City’s original warehouse and distribution center turned entertainment district.  Double Eagle Refinery Superfund Site – Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

Stop by next time you’re in OKC.  We’ll take a look out my office window and see if you can find Double Eagle now.

Reposted with permission from the ACOEL.