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Oklahoma's newest Superfund site has radiation in its soil, ponds, and groundwater

Two steep-banked ponds hold dark water. In the background, leafless trees partially block a view of the Arkansas River. Another facility's smokestacks are visible beyond that.
Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality
Holding ponds at the Fansteel site

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new Superfund site at Oklahoma’s Fansteel Metals, Inc. Covering 105 acres in Muskogee within the Cherokee Nation reservation, the facility contains radioactive and toxic materials that could threaten the health and safety of people living nearby if not properly contained.

From 1956 to 1989, Fansteel processed uranium ore into metals for electrical circuits. The radioactive and toxic leftovers from that process were stored in two waste pits and four acidic ponds. That waste has already seeped into the site’s groundwater and poses a threat to the nearby Arkansas River.

Now, the EPA and Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality have dedicated funds to clean up the site and protect residents as well as the environment from the lingering contamination. Fansteel is Oklahoma’s 18th Superfund site on the National Priorities List. Fourteen of those are still on the list and four have received enough cleanup to be deprioritized.

“Superfund cleanups make a visible and lasting difference in communities, especially communities already overburdened by pollution,” said  EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a statement.

A satellite image of the Fansteel Metals facility from above. Located NE of the interchange between U.S. Highway 72 and the Muskogee Turnpike, the facility has a few buildings and several waste ponds and pits. Some of those ponds/pits are within hundreds of feet of the Arkansas River.
Google Maps
The Fansteel site's waste ponds sit within hundreds of feet of the Arkansas River.

In January, Gov. Kevin Stitt wrote a letter to EPA Regional Administrator Earthea Nance requesting Fansteel be added to the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites.

Superfund sites are industrial areas that pose particularly dangerous environmental threats. These sites receive long-term federal funding and support to ensure the health and safety of people living near them.

The EPA normally designates Superfund sites for the NPL, but each state has a one-time authority to propose a site it considers to be of high importance. In his letter, Stitt invoked that ability and requested Fansteel be added to the NPL. His request had the support of the Cherokee and Muscogee Nations, according to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

When Fansteel went bankrupt in 2002, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission created a $4.5 million trust to help contain the site’s hazardous materials. Stitt said those funds would run out sometime in the next two years, leaving no resources to contain the waste and protect people living nearby from contaminated water.

“With no intervention,” Stitt wrote. “The site is at risk of becoming completely abandoned when the funds remaining in the NRC decommissioning fund are exhausted.”

In response, the EPA announced its plans to prioritize Fansteel in March, but that process can take a while since the agency has historically only updated the list once per year.

But this week’s announcement that Fansteel and two other Superfund sites had been added to the list marked the second update to the NPL in 2023. Regan credited that to a $3.5 billion federal investment in the Superfund program.

“The historic funding secured through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda provides a critical boost in funding for sites on the National Priorities List, allowing EPA to tackle legacy pollution in underserved communities across the country,” Regan said.

All three of the new additions to the NPL are matters of environmental justice, according to the EPA. The other two sites are in Louisiana and Indiana.

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Updated: September 20, 2023 at 1:09 PM CDT
This article originally said the Fansteel Superfund site was on Cherokee Nation land. It has been updated to clarify the site is within the Cherokee Nation reservation.
Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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