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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Coffeyville resilient after refinery flood

BY TIM POTTER
The Wichita Eagle

COFFEYVILLE — More than four years after a flood swamped a refinery and the town's east side — staining homes and businesses with 80,000 gallons of crude oil — the town is still recovering.

This industrial hub lost more than 300 homes to the flooding and oil, and 700 residents have left. Street after street of homes near the refinery are gone, leaving behind rows of slab foundations and sidewalks to nowhere.

Coffeyville Resources refinery spent more than $50 million buying out homes and businesses and paying damages.

Today, Coffeyville remains somewhat scarred by the flood but resilient — in some ways diminished, in some ways renewed.

Nothing illustrates that better than 65-year-old Jean King and the area around her. When every home around her was razed, leaving only slabs, sidewalks and empty streets, King and her sister stayed and rebuilt. The sisters live across from each other in fastidiously kept homes in the middle of a park-like, wooded expanse that had been home to hundreds of people.

Before the flood, King had wondered if she and her husband, Gary, should have flood insurance. But he couldn't imagine the Verdigris River getting that high. He died of a heart attack before the flood hit. Around July 1, 2007, floodwater rose up 4 feet in King's home.

Afterward, when King looked into moving, prices were too high for her. She told herself: "I can put this back together before I could buy a new house." She used savings to rebuild.

Inspectors looked for oil under her home but didn't find a problem, she said.

Today, King's white house gleams, with new siding and new flooring and trim. The yard is lush. A shiny chain-link fence protects her pecan and walnut grove.

Scavengers sometimes stalk the deserted lots around her, for scrap metal and bricks.

With so much green space around her home, it's like living in the country but with benefits of the city.

"We can order pizza and get it directly," she said.

With family around and neighbors keeping a protective eye from a distance, King said, she doesn't feel lonely.

The refinery has been a good neighbor, keeping the wooded lots around her mowed, she said.

However, some people remain bitter.

Who was at fault?

About a block from King's island of tranquillity, two dozen animal skulls hang off a metal structure and privacy fence. Someone has posted signs, one identifying the building as the "Dead zone garage" and one making an accusation: "Coffeyville Resources contaminated our homes and land then cheated us." About 5 feet up on the building's siding, someone wrote "Oil line here."

Recently, about 20 small businesses, farmers and residents settled two federal lawsuits against Coffeyville Resources over the oil. Their attorney, Wichita lawyer Randy Rathbun, said he couldn't comment on the settlement.

In a November 2010 court document, the plaintiffs contended that Coffeyville Resources "claims this horrible disaster was an act of God. This disaster, however, was not of God's making. It occurred because the refinery had a shocking lack of training which led to the overflow of a crude charge tank in the middle of a flood. It occurred because of the refinery's horrendous failure to act when it discovered — four hours before it happened — that indeed the tank was going to overflow."

The state and then the plaintiffs blamed part of the chain of events on someone forgetting to close a valve at the plant, allowing more than 80,000 gallons of crude to spread through the community.

In court documents, Coffeyville Resources said it had spent more than $50 million for damages to homes and businesses and that it had "remediated oil damage to the satisfaction" of environmental agencies.

Coffeyville Resources said the flooding began quickly and unexpectedly crested 10 feet above flood stage and 4 feet above refinery levees. "During the hectic activity of the emergency shutdown, Coffeyville Resources accidentally released 80,000 gallons of crude oil and 9,000 gallons of sewer system crude oil fractions into the flood waters of the Verdigris River."

Spokesman Steve Eames provided this e-mail statement Friday: "Coffeyville Resources has been an integral part of Coffeyville and Montgomery County for more than 100 years, and we are proud of our record as part of the community. .. .

"In the great majority of instances where neighbors suffered damages from the flood and the accidental release of crude oil it caused, Coffeyville Resources was able to offer appropriate settlements, including purchasing more than 300 homes at independently appraised pre-flood values plus 10 percent. In all but a few cases, our neighbors accepted those offers. We have no comment concerning the few instances where residents seeking larger payouts preferred to sue us in court."

Coffeyville Resources employs almost 600 area residents "in stable, good-paying jobs" and "supports many other jobs in the region through our vendors and other business partners," the statement said.

'I could still smell oil'

One of the downstream property owners who sued, Johnny Dodson, owns wooded land along a creek south of the refinery, covering 12 acres in Kansas and 56 acres in Oklahoma.

"The reason I bought it is so I'd always have a place to hunt and my boy would always have a place to hunt," Dodson said.

During the flooding, the Verdigris sent oil into the creek and onto his land, said Dodson, a 63-year-old retiree. On his land, he counted 2,400 trees and saplings — a mix of walnut, oak, pecan, sycamore and hackberry — with oil deposits.

"And I didn't count all of them. I figured 2,400 trees was enough," he said.

"A year and a half after the flood, I could still smell oil."

He estimates that a third of the trees still have oil spots or oil rings.

He knows of only one tree, a 35- to 40-foot-tall oak, that died, right after the flood, when oil collected at its base.

In places where crews cleaned up oil, the grass is thin, but for the most part his land has healed, he said.

Two other plaintiffs, George Chronister and his wife, Louise Stills, both 84, lost a house and garages they used for collecting, refinishing and consigning antiques.

Although they didn't live in the home, it had sentimental value. Stills had lived there for decades, had raised her son there. For two years after the flood, she couldn't bear to go down the street past her former home, Chronister said.

"She still won't talk about it very much, even today."

The flooding sent water about 5 inches up into the home and about 3 feet up into the garages, destroying personal items, he said.

After the flooding, he said, the home smelled like a refinery.

They sold the property in the buyout.

Effects of the flood

As a community, "We are still feeling the effects of the flood," said City Manager Jeff Morris.

He noted that in lot after lot, foundations and slabs remain, and those houses have yet to be replaced by new housing.

In other parts of town, some new houses and apartments have become available. The city has used grants to help build streets and utilities to serve new housing. But homes haven't gone up in many cases because of the economic and housing downturn and because loans are more difficult to get, Morris said.

Still, he said, "We've set the stage for growth when the economy does turn back up. We are positive about our future, and we really don't talk about the flood anymore."

The flood's impact can be seen in a declining population, he said. The unofficial 2010 Census count is 10,295, a drop of a little more than 700 since the 2000 count. Most of that decline probably stems from the flood, he said.

FEMA had estimated that about 1,000 people were displaced by the flood. "At least we didn't lose all of them," Morris said.

On the positive side, he said, a new apartment complex opened downtown earlier this year. Eighteen single-family rental houses have been built on the south side of town, and new housing has sprouted in places.

Coffeyville retains its large employer base, which includes the refinery, Acme Foundry, Amazon.com, a John Deere plant and Southwire, a wire manufacturing company. The city's hospital has expanded. Coffeyville remains a key part of the regional economy.

Relocating, moving on

More than four years after the flooding receded, bits of the past remain. At the south end of Moon Street, rows of gutted utility meters mark where mobile homes sat.

Across the street, a large concrete pad is all that's left of the garage where Charlie Loomis loved to tinker with machines. He and his wife, Vicki Loomis, also had a house there and raised sons there. Charlie Loomis, who had worked 33 years at the refinery as a boilermaker- welder, suffered a heart attack and died less than a month after the flood, at 64.

Vicki Loomis, now 68, has relocated with her cat Taz to a home on the other side of town, with a pink flamingo in the front yard, in a nicer neighborhood than the one she left.

She would have rebuilt the home if there had been no oil contamination, she said. She accepted the buyout.

"I think the refinery did their part," she said. "I think they stepped up."

The buyout "wasn't what I wanted," she said. "But it is what it is. ... I don't harbor any ill feeling against the refinery."

At her new home, she said, "I'm comfortable."

Still, "I miss Moon Street."

She transplanted some of her Moon Street plants to her new yard. Some mums are beginning to bloom.

"You don't want to forget where you came from," she said.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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