Huge settlement reached on Kerr-McGee contamination sites, but West Chicago forged its own deal

Editor's note: Story modified April 4 to clarify status of West Chicago in this settlement.

The federal government Thursday reached a $5.15 billion settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the largest ever for environmental contamination, to settle claims related to the cleanup of thousands of sites tainted with hazardous chemicals for decades.

The bulk of the money - $4.4 billion - will pay for environmental cleanup and be used to settle claims stemming from the legacy contamination.

The settlement resolves a legal battle over Tronox Inc., a spinoff of Kerr-McGee Corp., a company Anadarko acquired in 2006.

A former Kerr-McGee gaslight mantle factory in West Chicago became notorious in the 1990s for burying radioactive thorium, and the contamination spread to houses and school yards, Reed-Keppler Park, a sewage treatment plant, Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River.

The city, however, forged its own agreement to get the cleanup started. That is nearly completed, and West Chicago was specifically excluded from the settlement announced Thursday.

The factory produced the radioactive by-product from its opening in 1931 to when it closed in 1973. Kerr-McGee, which bought the factory in 1967, at one time sought to bury the thorium on site but later agreed to remove it and ship it to a Clive, Utah, desert.

Rich Kassanits, a West Chicago resident who helped form the Thorium Action Group with neighbors in the late 1980s, said the $5.15 billion settlement agreement was "gratifying" news.

"Just because you know something's bad, it's happening and it's not right, doesn't mean you already get justice," Kassanits said.

Kassanits helped form the grass-roots group just as Kerr-McGee had received federal approval to bury thorium on site. But after negotiations and legal battles ensued, much of the radioactive waste was shipped out, and subsequent environmental remediation of yards and waterways began.

"That's what we were fighting for - just to have a normal life instead of having a nuclear waste dump in the middle of our town," Kassanits said.

Kerr-McGee, founded in 1929, left behind a long legacy of environmental contamination nationwide: polluting Lake Mead in Nevada with rocket fuel, leaving behind radioactive waste piles throughout the territory of the Navajo Nation, and dumping carcinogenic creosote in communities throughout the East, Midwest and South at its wood-treating facilities.

The company, rather than pay for the environmental mess it created, decided to shift the liabilities from 2002 to 2006 into Tronox. Kerr-McGee, meanwhile, kept its valuable oil and gas assets.

"Kerr-McGee's businesses all over this country left significant, lasting environmental damage in their wake," said Deputy Attorney General James Cole. "It tried to shed its responsibility for this environmental damage and stick the United States with the huge cleanup bill."

The settlement releases Anadarko from all claims against Kerr-McGee.

"This settlement ... eliminates the uncertainty this dispute has created, and the proceeds will fund the remediation and cleanup of the legacy environmental liabilities," said Anadarko CEO Al Walker.

• Daily Herald staff writer Christopher Placek contributed to this report.

Radioactive thorium was produced at the former Kerr-McGee site in West Chicago. Prior to this week's $5 billion settlement, the city forged its own agreement with the federal government to ensure cleanup of the former factory site and other contaminated areas. dAILY hERALD FILE PHOTO
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