Anadarko’s $5 Billion Environmental Settlement: 4 Things Okies Should Know

A Kerr-McGee service station and refinery in Wynnewood, photographed in 1974.

Kerr-McGee Corporation Collection / Oklahoma Historical Society

A Kerr-McGee service station and refinery in Wynnewood, photographed in 1974.

Anadarko Petroleum on Thursday agreed to pay more than $5 billion for an immense environmental cleanup that includes U.S. sites contaminated by nuclear fuel, rocket fuel waste and wood creosote.

The case was brought by a trust representing the U.S. government, 11 states, Indian tribes and individuals affected by the contamination, and sought funds for cleanups at 2,700 sites in 47 states.

“If you are responsible for 85 years of poisoning the earth, then you are responsible for cleaning it up,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement about the settlement. “That’s why this case was brought.

Here’s what Oklahomans need to know:

1. This is About an Oklahoma Company

The settlement was with Houston-based energy heavy Anadarko Petroleum, but the case centers on an Oklahoma company: Kerr-McGee.

The Oklahoma City-based chemical, energy and manufacturing firm was founded in 1929 and gained notoriety in the 1970s when Karen Silkwood accused the company of poisoning her with radioactive material at its nuclear fuel facility in Crescent, Okla. Meryl Streep portrayed the plant worker and labor activist in the Oscar-nominated 1983 film “Silkwood.”

Kerr-McGee in 2005 spun off another company, a paint and chemical outfit called Tronox. ForbesChristopher Helman on this important detail:

Kerr-McGee had set up Tronox as a kind of pit of despair into which it loaded up decades of toxic environmental liabilities and toxic tort claims, balanced them out with a handful of assets, then spun it out as a standalone public company.

Free of Tronox, Kerr-McGee had become far more attractive to suitors.

Anadarko bought Kerr-McGee in 2006 for $16.4 billion in cash. Anadarko estimated Kerr-Mcgee had $1.6 billion in debt and liabilities, Helman writes, but that figure didn’t include the Tronox “pit”:

It hadn’t counted on being haunted by those Tronox liabilities, which reared their head after Tronox filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and at one point were tallied up at $25 billion, encompassing more than 2,500 sites across the country.

The U.S. Department of Justice wasn’t happy:

The United States and the bankruptcy estate (now represented by the Trust) brought this lawsuit to hold the defendants accountable and require them to repay the value of the assets fraudulently conveyed from Old Kerr-McGee.

Among other things, the court concluded that: “[T]here can be no dispute that Kerr-McGee acted to free substantially all its assets – certainly its most valuable assets – from 85 years of environmental and tort liabilities.”

2. This is a Record Settlement

Anadarko’s $5.15 billion settlement is likely the “largest recovery for the cleanup of environmental contamination in history,” according to the EPA. It’s certainly the largest the U.S. Department of Justice has even won, Reuters’ Nick Brown reports:

… larger even than its plea agreement with BP over its massive 2010 Gulf oil spill, which resulted in $4 billion in criminal fines for the British company.

3. The Settlement Will Fund a Wide Array of Clean-up Projects

Of the $5.15 billion, $4.475 billion will go to environmental beneficiaries and $605 million will go to individual plaintiffs, the EPA says:

In particular, the environmental proceeds will be distributed to governments and environmental response trusts, primarily for future cleanup costs at sites covered by the settlement, but also to reimburse the governments for cleanup costs previously incurred at the sites. In addition, such proceeds will enable the governments and environmental response trusts to clean up contaminated Environmental Justice communities in and around the Navajo Nation, West Chicago, Ill., Jacksonville, Fla., and Navassa, N.C.

Kerr-McGee has a pretty toxic legacy, The Washington Post‘s Juliet Eilperin and Sari Horwitz report:

The stretch of Kerr-McGee’s operations over nearly a century was vast, Justice Department officials said, encompassing everything from wood treatment to rocket fuel processing. Its perchlorate business contaminated Lake Mead, a major source of drinking water for the Southwest; its uranium mining operations left radioactive waste piles throughout Navajo Nation territory.

4. Oklahoma Could Get Some of the Clean-up Money

According to the EPA, “the environmental proceeds will be distributed to governments and environmental response trusts, primarily for future cleanup costs at sites covered by the settlement, but also to reimburse the governments for cleanup costs previously incurred at the sites.”

Some of those sites — or their respective environmental trusts, known as ERTs — are in Oklahoma, and were identified in the 2011 Tronox bankruptcy case:

  • Cimarron, Okla. — A former nuclear fuel processing facility. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state of Oklahoma are the lead agencies, with distinct responsibilities, for the trust.
  • Cleveland, Okla. — Former refinery site
  • Cushing, Okla. —Oklahoma Oil Well Cementing Co. and surrounding properties.
  • Gore, Kriner/Stigler, and Wynnewood sites, Okla.
  • Hundreds of service stations throughout the state

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Comments

  • Stephen Willis

    The next time you hear someone bashing the Environmental Protection Agency or our federal environmental laws, just remember that, without them, you have no tools to hold criminal corporate polluters accountable for offloading their poisons into our air and water. Cancer doesn’t just come from smoking cigarettes or exposure to the sun.

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