Oklahoma

Economy, Energy, Natural Resources: Policy to People

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Cast-off State Parks Thrive Under Tribal Control, But Not Without Some Struggle

Rick Geisler, manager of Wah-Sha-She Park in Osage County, stands on the shore of Hula Lake.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Rick Geisler, manager of Wah-Sha-She Park in Osage County, stands on the shore of Hula Lake.

When budget cuts led the Oklahoma tourism department to find new homes for seven state parks in 2011, two of them went to Native American tribes. Both are open and doing well, but each has faced its own difficulties in the transition.

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Some Parks Oklahoma Offloaded to Save Money Are Thriving Under Local Control

Mike Hancock has been the manager at Brushy Lake Park since 1980.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Mike Hancock has been the manager at Brushy Lake Park since 1980.

In April 2011, Oklahoma was dealing with a half-billion dollar budget shortfall, and the state tourism department had just decided to offload seven of its parks to save money.

Three years later, StateImpact finds that all seven parks are still open, and at least two — Brushy Lake Park and Beaver Dunes Park — are thriving.

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Why One Oklahoma Oil Executive Doesn’t Think Oil and Gas Tax Cuts Are Needed

Don Millican, the Chief Financial Officer of Kaiser-Francis Oil Company.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Don Millican, the Chief Financial Officer of Kaiser-Francis Oil Company.

The Kaiser-Francis Oil Company has a lot in common with other storied Oklahoma energy empires. The company has by-the-bootstrap entrepreneurial origins, it’s been battered by boom and bust, and it’s helmed by a billionaire CEO who has weathered controversy and been showered with praise.

But the Tulsa-based exploration and production company is unique in one surprising way: It isn’t pushing for oil and gas tax cuts.

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Worsening Drought Exposes Host of Other Problems for Lake Texoma Residents

Lisa Davis (right) with the advocacy group Save Lake Texoma near the Rooster Creek Bridge at Lake Texoma State Park.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Lisa Davis (right), founder of the advocacy group Save Lake Texoma, near Rooster Creek Bridge at Lake Texoma State Park.

At the end of August 2013, Lake Texoma was full of water. But drought, and decisions by state and federal officials have meant a drop in levels. That’s a big problem for Kingston, Okla., a community that depends on lake tourism for its local economy.

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Lawmakers Join Landowners Who Think Getting a Mining Permit is Too Easy

Johnston County Landowner Clyde Runyon just outside a limestone mining operation near Mill Creek, Okla.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Johnston County Landowner Clyde Runyon just outside a limestone mining operation near Mill Creek, Okla.

Limestone and sand miners are getting a lot of attention lately. The amount of groundwater they can displace from the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer was recently capped, and the state House could authorize a new tax on the industry.

That’s not all. The Oklahoma Department of Mines has an unusual permitting process some landowners say leaves them feeling helpless when a new mine is proposed, and they want that process changed.

“It’s really screwed up,” Citizens for the Protection of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer President Amy Ford says.

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The Reason Toxic ‘Releases’ Are Up in Oklahoma, and Why It’s Not That Scary

Toxic waste from New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin is brought by rail to Oklahoma, where it's treated and stored at the Lone Mountain Landfill.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Toxic waste from New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin is brought by rail to Oklahoma, where it's treated and stored at the Lone Mountain Landfill.

New data from the federal government show a drop in the amount of toxic chemicals being released into the nation’s air, water and land. In Oklahoma, however, so-called toxic “releases” have soared.

But it’s not as scary as it sounds.

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How Corn, Cold Weather and a Nuclear Disaster Caused Propane Prices to Explode

DaviesPic

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Propane customer Shawn Davies vowed not to refill his tank until priced drop significantly.

The 400,000 or so Oklahomans who rely on propane to heat their homes know the routine: When the weather is warm, propane is cheap. When it gets cold, and demand goes up, so does the price.

But what happened this winter is unprecedented. Propane prices are starting to ease after blowing past all-time records in January, reaching a national average of more than $4 a gallon.

There are many reasons the price of propane jumped so high so fast, but it all starts in Japan three years ago, when an earthquake triggered the tsunami that caused the disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.

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Cleanup of Hazardous Oklahoma Refinery Site Went Unfunded Until People Moved In

Tyler Lane pulls up a wooden marker covered with oily sludge in the land behind his Bristow home. Lane uses stakes and rope to keep his two children out of the oiliest, most dangerous parts of his land, which sits atop the abandoned Wilcox Refinery, Oklahoma’s newest Superfund site.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Tyler Lane pulls up a wooden marker covered with oily sludge in the land behind his Bristow home. Lane uses stakes and rope to keep his two children out of the oiliest, most dangerous parts of his property, which sits atop the abandoned Wilcox Refinery, Oklahoma’s newest Superfund site.

You can’t see it from street, or when you look out the window of Glen Jones’ parents’ house, but the Wilcox Refinery is still here. Parts of it, anyway.

In December 2013, the abandoned refinery complex near Bristow became Oklahoma’s newest federal Superfund site. The Wilcox Refinery closed more than 50 years ago, but lead and other toxic chemicals remain, and residents are uneasy about the long cleanup ahead.

The Wilcox and Lorraine refineries operated at the 125-acre Bristow Superfund site. The complex was abandoned in 1963. The cleanup was crude, and much of the oily sludge, waste and equipment was simply buried.

Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality

The Wilcox and Lorraine refineries operated at the 125-acre Bristow Superfund site. The complex was abandoned in 1963. The cleanup was crude, and much of the oily sludge, waste and equipment was simply buried.

Complex Cleanup

“See the black stuff all over the rocks and all over the leaves,” Jones says, walking alongside a creek bed behind the modest home. “Kinda looks like crude, don’t it?”

The complex was home to the Wilcox and Lorraine refineries and opened shortly after statehood. The small town, now home to about 4,200, welcomed the jobs and the refineries’ role in helping bring to market the riches of Oklahoma’s first oil boom.

The refinery was employing about 75 locals who were helping process about 5,500 barrels of oil a day when it closed in the mid-‘50s. Another oil company bought the refinery with the hopes of re-opening it, but gave up, and the site was abandoned in 1963.

Efforts to decommission the complex — which included a cracking and skimming plant and batteries of storage tanks, and pits of oily sludge and waste — were, in a word, crude.

“They said the tanks were here, and they just bulldozer-ed over the top of them,” Jones says, pointing out corroded metal pipes poking out of the ground, and half-buried bits of rusting machine parts. “There’s stuff all through this ground, we just don’t know it.”

Bristow residents packed the public library during a January 2014 town-hall meeting, where officials from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explained the Superfund cleanup process and answered questions.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Bristow residents packed the public library during a January 2014 town-hall meeting, where officials from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explained the Superfund cleanup process and answered questions.

“I’ve had it all over me”

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hosted a town hall at the Bristow Pubic Library in January to explain the Superfund cleanup process and answer questions.

Residents packed the room and spilled into the library’s foyer, where overflow seating was added. Monty Elder, public land participation officer with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, gave a presentation about the history of the Wilcox Refinery site, and detailed some of the site’s environmental hazards.

When the refinery opened in 1915, the oil industry health officials “weren’t even aware of environmental problems,” she told the crowd.

Worried residents, like Rachel Lane, took turns at the microphone. When Lane and her husband, Tyler, bought their home, they thought they were buying a farm — not a tank farm.

“We’ve got the actual sludge — or whatever you want to call it — coming up,” Rachel says.

Prior to the meeting, Tyler Lane gave me a walking tour of their land around their home. He has strung rope across the property keep their kids out of the oily sludge. The worst spots are marked with wooden stakes. When you pull on them, the ground heaves and oozes.

The EPA estimates a dozen other people live within the boundaries of the old refinery site. Another 5,000 live within two miles. A full survey hasn’t been completed, but environmental officials say the soil and a nearby creek are likely contaminated with copper and lead, and powerful atmospheric pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

“What should we do if we come into contact with that,” Rachel asked the environmental officials at the town hall. “Because my dogs have been in it. I’ve bathed them, so I’ve had it all over me. I have a 2 and a 5-year-old out playing — you never know.”

Monty Elder, public land participation officer with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, answers residents’ questions about environmental hazards at the Wilcox Refinery site.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Monty Elder, public land participation officer with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, answers residents’ questions about environmental hazards at the Wilcox Refinery site.

“Abandoned and Uncontrolled”

Oklahoma’s Department of Environmental Quality was created in 1993. A year later, environmental officials there started trying to get the federal government to give the Wilcox Refinery site Superfund status. This designation is the only way “abandoned, uncontrolled, hazardous” waste sites in Oklahoma ever get cleaned up. Monty Elder with the DEQ told the town hall crowd why.

“The state of Oklahoma does not have any money to clean up sites,” Elder says. “There’s not a pot of money out there. The legislature hasn’t given us money.”

The EPA’s equation for determining which of the country’s hazardous waste sites are declared Superfund projects is based on human health hazards, Elder and other DEQ and EPA officials say. In the ’90s, there weren’t enough people living near Bristow’s abandoned refinery to make the cut, so nothing was done.

Decades later, with no obvious signs of the environmental hazards, the Lane and Jones families — and others — moved in, on top of a toxic waste site they couldn’t see. Because they moved in, there’s a human health risk and federal funding, so the cleanup can begin.

Mining Companies Might Find It’s Not Impossible to Raise Taxes In Oklahoma

Piles of crushed limestone along railroad tracks near Mill Creek, Okla.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Piles of crushed limestone along railroad tracks near Mill Creek, Okla.

Last week, StateImpact reported on what the passage of State Question 640 in 1992 did to tax policy in Oklahoma.

“You need to have a super-majority in the House and the Senate and the governor has to sign it,” Alexander Holmes, a Regent’s Professor of Economics at the University of Oklahoma, said. “I’m still betting that if you reduce the taxes, you can never make them go up again.”

But there there are ways around the tax-killing law, as the mining industry may be about to discover.

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