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Conoco Offers $23 Million to Settle Contamination Lawsuit

April 3, 1990 GMT

PONCA CITY, Okla. (AP) _ Conoco Inc., in one of the biggest settlements of its kind, has agreed to pay $23 million to buy 400 homes and compensate families who say its refinery is giving them cancer and other illnesses.

Under the settlement announced Monday with families who had sued the company for allegedly contaminating the air and water, Conoco would buy the properties for about $18 million and establish a $5 million compensation fund.

Homeowner Mike Gallagher said his family was ready to move.

″The sooner, the better. Now we can go to the other side of town. No more nosebleeds. No more headaches. We can live with good-smelling air,″ he said.

Under the settlement, Conoco, a subsidiary of the Du Pont Co., admits no liability.

″I would put that as one of the largest relocation settlements in the country,″ Conoco attorney Mark Zehler said.

Two comparable cases involved government money: the evacuation of homes built atop tons of chemical waste at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and the virtual abandonment in 1982 of Times Beach, Mo., which was tainted by dioxin.

The Love Canal buyout, in 1978, involved about $19 million to purchase 232 homes. In Times Beach, about $33 million was spent to buy 393 properties.

Homeowners in the Circle Drive area of Ponca City had complained since 1987 that groundwater laced with hydrocarbons, including cancer-causing banzene, seeped into their basements and threatened their health. Some residents camped out at the state Capitol for weeks in 1988 to get the state to buy their houses.

The protesters said heavy rain two years earlier had unleashed toxic, reddish-orange sludge that bubbled up from cracks in sidewalks, and black slime that oozed into their basements.

Conoco said then the sludge was the result of iron ore, and the state Health Department and federal Environmental Protection Agency agreed there was no health hazard. But residents said they had suffered an inordinate rate of cancer deaths and other ailments.

Gallagher said his wife miscarried twice. Another baby was born three months premature and weighed 2 pounds, 2 ounces. He lived a week, Gallagher said. ″People ask why we didn’t leave,″ he said. ″We couldn’t afford it.″

Refinery manager Dennis Parker said Conoco settled ″because it is the right thing to do - for these residents, for Ponca City and for Conoco.″

″The situation has caused dissension in our community for too long - it’s time to put it behind us,″ he said.

Anna Sue Rafferty, who spoke on behalf of the plaintiffs, declined to fix blame.

″To Conoco and Du Pont we say ‘thank you’ in coming forth with this settlement,″ Ms. Rafferty said. ″I’d just like to say none of us is happy to be leaving our home. No one intended to get rich.″

A hearing on the settlement is set for June 5 in federal court in Oklahoma City.

If approved, the settlement of the lawsuit filed in March 1989 would enable many owners and renters of property to move. Residents of a larger area of the neighborhood could receive payments because of their proximity to the groundwater problems and the work needed to fix them.

Conoco would pay residents the appraised value of their homes, an above market-value premium, a moving and household disruption bonus and other sums.

″I’m happy,″ Mae Morgan said while standing next to her former house, which she abandoned a year ago when she could no longer stand the fumes. ″No one will ever live in the Circle Drive area again.″