FOX23 INVESTIGATION: Man thinks soil from childhood home poisoned him

BRISTOW, Okla. — Quick Facts:

  • A Bristow man believes that chemicals in his soil have poisoned him.

  • FOX23 uncovered documents showing that the government first suspected problems 20 years ago. Testing shows that officials found harmful elements in the soil, including lead and arsenic.

  • FOX23's Janna Clark talked to a man who lives on the soil who thinks it is killing him.

An abandoned home in Bristow sits on land that the government calls potentially hazardous. Roy White's family has owned it for decades.

“(I) used to play out there as a kid,” White told FOX23. “(I) lived there off and on 30 years of my life.”

For a while, White ran a lawn care company.

Four years ago, Clark knocked on White’s door to ask him about it. He ran her off his property.

“I was afraid someone would take my inheritance away. The only thing I have … that was my home. That's all I had. That's all I had to show,” White told FOX23.

Now White wants to talk because he's scared about something else: his health.

“I just feel like I don't have long if something's not done,” he said.

His house used to be an office for oil refineries that did business decades ago and left hazardous waste behind.

In 2013, FOX23 found gooey black sludge in the nearby creek and all over families' backyards.

Here’s a timeline of the oil refinery and testing on the land:

White, who is only 55, said that except for the poor eyesight with which he was born, he's always been in good health.

Now he's short of breath, blacks out and gets chest pains. He suffered one incident while talking to FOX23.

After a couple of minutes, his pain went away.

“I know he's dying on me. I know it,” his wife, Vicki, said.

Another problem he has is "tuning out" when he loses time for a few minutes.

That also happened while he talked to Clark.

White showed us a stack of doctor bills. He's been trying to figure out what's wrong with him.

“I'm in debt to these hospitals, doctors,” White said.

He opened a 2015 letter from the Environmental Protection Agency. Its soil tests show that officials found high levels of arsenic in every part of his yard. In one spot, tests showed that it was eight times too high.

“It was getting this that made you know what to test for?” Clark asked.

Yes, White said. He asked his doctor to give him a heavy metal test. Results showed four times too much arsenic in his blood.

“What did the doctor say?” Clark asked.

“He can't understand why I’m even still on this earth,” White said. “I’m so high with arsenic poisoning.”

“You think the chemicals poisoned your body?” Clark asked.

“Yes. I don't know where to go from here. I have no representative, I just don't know what to do,” White said.

The EPA named White’s home part of a 125-acre Superfund site in 2013, a national priority cleanup area.

FOX23 saw workers digging and taking samples on the property.

FOX23 requested the results, and some of the 14,000 pages have come in with info dating back to 1994, when the Department of Environmental Quality first raised concerns.

Records include photos that the EPA took of White’s yard showing what it calls “contaminated soil" and "oily sludge.”

The report lists the contaminants, including arsenic. It also calls the residents "primary targets" for potential "threat to human health.”

But White said it took 21 years before he got a letter.

“I didn't know there was any dangerous chemicals there that would cause me harm,” he said.

FOX23 asked the EPA and the DEQ why they didn't tell neighbors about the contaminants. They emailed this response:

“The PA in 1994 for Wilcox did not involve collection of environmental samples. With regard to the PA report, the presence of certain contaminants, and at what levels, is unknown without actual sample collection. Environmental samples were collected in later investigations.

DEQ and EPA have cautioned residents on the Wilcox Superfund Site about potential risks that may be on site. DEQ and EPA have provided suggestions to limit potential exposures to contamination. Until the site can be fully investigated, the actual risks to human health are unknown. Residential yards were sampled by EPA in 2015. Those results concluded that no threat was present that required immediate action.

One area with elevated lead and another area with a large amount of waste material was fenced off to prevent access to those areas. Fencing is a temporary measure until those areas can be permanently addressed.

As to the relocation of residents on or near the Wilcox Superfund Site, that is a decision that residents would need to make for themselves.

In 1994, DEQ and EPA began the process of understanding what types of threats/hazards could be on the site. The investigations leading up to the site becoming a Superfund Site, were for the purpose of determining if it warranted the Superfund designation. Only through completion of a Risk Assessment, which follows the completion of a complete Remedial Investigation of the site, will the risks to human health and surrounded environment be fully understood.  

The Superfund investigation process is iterative; it begins with assessment of land use, population, and historical information about operations of a facility and their waste practices.  Many Superfund sites were operational and defunct long before the existence of environmental regulation.  Following the initial assessment, EPA determines if the site should continue in the Superfund process.  Much of that decision is based on the land use assessment and the potential for exposure to people. 

After that sampling investigations are performed to better understand what, if anything, may be present from historical operations.  The benchmark that EPA uses in this phase is whether contaminants are 3 times above background, at a minimum.  Additional investigations may follow to better define the type and concentration of contaminants that may pose risk to people and/or the environment.  If the answer is yes, then the site may be proposed for a Superfund site.  The potential for risk does not mean that there is an actual exposure, only the potential for exposure.  The Superfund program is designed to act on potential exposure; in cases where the potential for exposure is imminent, EPA has authorities to take actions to remove those exposures.  In the case of Wilcox, fencing off areas to restrict access and thus exposure, is considered removing the potential for risk.

The Wilcox site was investigated in 1994 based on information that a former refinery operated in the area.  The site did not rank for Superfund listing.   In the early 2000’s, the land use changed when the former refinery was developed for residential housing.  DEQ responded to a call from a concerned citizen in 2005 about the situation and initiated the Superfund investigation process again, by updating the land use assessment. After these investigational assessments were completed, the EPA scored the site using the Superfund mathematical model for evaluating exposure pathways.  The site scored high enough to be proposed to the National Priorities List (NPL), was proposed for listing in the federal register and was included as a Superfund site in 2013.  This part of the process requires announcement in the federal register and the opportunity for public comment.

After the site was listed on the NPL, the DEQ and EPA sampled residential yards to determine the potential for exposure.  No immediate threats were identified, with the exception of two areas that were fenced off by EPA to restrict access and remove the potential for exposure.  DEQ and EPA also sampled private drinking water wells and found that the water is safe to drink.  DEQ and EPA have routinely monitored these wells to ensure they continue to be safe to drink.

The EPA and DEQ are currently working on expanded investigation of the site to get more detailed information about the site so that a plan can be developed for the best way to clean it up.  This work will continue this spring and summer.

DEQ and EPA are committed to community awareness and have held 4 open house meetings to share information about the site and the Superfund process with the community.  DEQ also continues to provide information to residents, on request, and to keep them up to date on planned activities."