Las Vegas Sun

August 21, 2017

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Kerr-McGee’s history not trouble-free

Oklahoma City attorney Jim Ikard was not surprised to learn that his old nemesis, Kerr-McGee Corp., is mentioned in the same breath as environmental contamination.

The lawyer, who specializes in environmental cases, has gone to battle with the corporate energy giant twice in the past 21 years over issues involving negligence that resulted in contamination by hazardous chemicals.

He won both cases.

Nevada health officials are looking for the source of ammonium perchlorate contamination in Las Vegas Wash, which flows into Lake Mead.

Perchlorate has a wide variety of uses, including production of rocket fuel.

Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp. makes perchlorate at a plant near Henderson and stores 5,000 tons of perchlorate at Apex, 15 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

In a prepared statement from the corporation's headquarters in Oklahoma City, communications director Dow Dozier defended the company's safety record in the production of perchlorate.

"Kerr-McGee is proud of our record for safely and responsibly producing AP (ammonium perchlorate) since acquiring the Henderson plant in 1967," Dozier said.

He noted that the chemical, vital to the country's space and defense programs, has been manufactured in the Henderson area for more than 50 years.

"While there are no federal or Nevada regulations controlling the discharge of perchlorates, in the mid-1970s Kerr-McGee installed a 'closed system' that virtually eliminated the discharge of AP.

"More recently we have been working within the industry to develop appropriate standards."

The company is aware some testing for perchlorate in the water has been done in the Henderson-Lake Mead area, Dozier said.

"However, we have not been provided with the results and cannot verify the nature or the validity of the tests," he said. "If it is ultimately determined that AP is a valid concern, Kerr-McGee will act responsibly with local, state and federal officials in determining appropriate remedial solutions."

Ikard says that though Kerr-McGee has had contamination problems in the past, it may be blameless in this instance because the chemical he calls "perk" for short could be coming from another source, such as a laundry.

Perchlorate, he notes, is a solvent and it could be that someone is dumping it either in the water or into the ground and the chemical is seeping into underground water and being carried to the Las Vegas Wash.

Kerr-McGee, however, because it has the largest amount of the chemical, likely will be considered a possible source.

"My experiences have always been that Kerr-McGee was a very successful and profitable oil and gas and marketing company," Ikard said. "But it has always appeared to have problems with complying with regulations promulgated by government agencies. They have also had problems operationally with avoiding releases and exposures."

The first time he sued Kerr-McGee was on behalf of the family of Karen Silkwood.

Silkwood gained international fame when she was killed in a car wreck in Oklahoma City in 1974 while en route to a meeting with a New York Times reporter. She ostensibly was going to reveal to him problems of gross negligence resulting in contamination at a Kerr-McGee-operated plutonium fuel production plant in central Oklahoma.

Silkwood was found to be contaminated with plutonium a week before the crash and investigators found traces of plutonium contamination in her apartment and her refrigerator.

Kerr-McGee officials claimed at the time that Silkwood contaminated herself to embarrass the company.

"(Kerr-McGee) made fuel rods for an experimental nuclear breeder reactor," said Ikard as he recalled the case that consumed years of his life. "They underbid or misbid the contract or they didn't understand some changes would be made that would make it unprofitable. Anyway, they ran up against deadlines."

According to Ikard, the deadlines resulted in the company putting the health and safety of workers at risk.

"They constantly looked to the bottom line and required workers to work in circumstances not safe," he said. "There were incident reports that showed large numbers of workers were exposed. They were required to work in contaminated areas."

Ikard said from his experience and observations, Kerr-McGee "has had problems and continues to have problems with regulatory compliance. My own observation from my cases, they didn't understand what they were getting into and once they got into it tried to minimize the burden on the company for compliance. They do what is minimally required and walk a fine line on that."

Bill Silkwood, Karen's father, sued Kerr-McGee in 1976 and won. The victory was overturned on appeal, but 10 years later -- in 1986 -- there was an out-of-court settlement in which the company paid Silkwood $1.38 million.

In was in 1986 that Kerr-McGee's name was linked to another disaster in Oklahoma.

The company owned Sequoyah Fuels in a rural county on the eastern side of the state, where it manufactured uranium hexafluoride, which was used in nuclear fuel.

In January 1986, an explosion at the plant killed one employee and sent a uranium-contaminated cloud over a wide area of Sequoyah County, causing a number of people to become ill.

In a suit against Kerr-McGee, Ikard represented 11 members of a family holding a reunion near the plant.

Kerr-McGee again settled out of court and eventually sold the plant, which has since been shut down and is being decontaminated.

"They never got a handle on their safety problems," Ikard said. "They continuously ran afoul of even the most lax regulations. And one of their major problems was they either had a lack of qualified personnel or they were not letting their qualified people do their job."

He said rather than hiring scientists to run things, "they hired regular working folks -- like it was a packing plant."

Coincidentally, Ikard is involved in an ammonium perchlorate lawsuit at this moment, one against Dow Chemical and Ashland Corp.

He is doing an appeal for a group of Texas attorneys who represent 400 former employees of Tinker Air Force Base just outside Oklahoma City.

The former workers claim they are suffering from a variety of ailments due to long-term exposure to perchlorate, commonly used as a solvent to clean jet engines.

"The characteristic of perk is that it depresses the central nervous system and can lead to death from respiratory paralysis," Ikard said.

Ikard, using the expertise he has gained from numerous lawsuits over the years, speculated that in Nevada investigators will look at subsurface water migration.

"They will want to know if the perk can be transported by subsurface water," he explained. "If it can be, then there is a transport rate -- so many feet or yards per year, a flow rate."

He said it could take years for the chemical to flow underground to the point of contamination.

"And it could be that the groundwater flows in the opposite direction from the point of contamination and so the (suspected contaminator) could not possibly have done it," he said.

Or the rate of flow could be such that it absolves a suspect of guilt.

"Investigators will do an inventory of everything there, of every possible source of contamination, and then do underground hydrology. When they finish with that, they will theoretically know what the source is."

Ikard noted that perchlorate is "very ubiquitous. It is an organic chemical, a volatile liquid at normal temperatures. It is widely used in the industrial process and in dry cleaning. And it would show up in machine shops."