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Groundwater pollution case pits Bethany against aerospace companies

BETHANY — Groundwater pollutants from a closed aerospace plant that threaten to contaminate Bethany's municipal water supply have been found in concentrations as high as eight times the federal limit, according to Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality records.

The finding contradicts earlier claims by two aerospace companies that previously operated the plant that pollutants found in the groundwater near Wiley Post Airport fall below federal limits.

A plume of the solvent tetrachloroethylene extends from the former Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. and Rockwell Automation Inc. plant at Wiley Post, threatening Bethany's nearby city water wells.

Tetrachoroethylene, also known as TCE, was used degrease metal aircraft parts at the old aerospace plant. TCE is known to cause liver problems and increase the risk of cancer in humans after prolonged exposure, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In a federal lawsuit filed in September, Bethany claims Rockwell Automation and Gulfstream Aerospace are responsible for a plume of pollution from aircraft solvents found in the groundwater west of the old Gulfstream manufacturing plant at Wiley Post Airport, 7400 NW 50.

Now the two aerospace companies claim the city of Bethany's leaky old sewer pipes are to blame for the pollution.

In court documents, the aerospace companies claim the pollution is caused by the city's 67-year old clay sewer pipes.

“Bethany has refused to take any action to address contamination that originated on its own property, instead seeking to shift blame to entities that have no responsibility for the contamination," the companies said in counterclaims filed Nov. 18.

The companies claim Bethany's share of the cost of cleanup will be in excess of $125,000.

The city of Bethany has been forced to use two of its water wells to try to capture the contaminated ground water, and pump it into the sewer treatment system, in hopes of keeping the pollutants out of the rest of the city's water supply, said David Davis, Bethany's city attorney.

The city is not using any of the contaminated water and it's testing the water on a monthly basis, Davis said.

Davis could not provide an exact amount, but said the problem has already cost Bethany several hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The city denies the aerospace companies' claim that Bethany's sewer system is the source of the pollution, he said.

"We disagree with that," Davis said.

The companies denied pollution exceeds federal limits

In September, Gulfstream and Rockwell Automation told The Oklahoman that pollution found in the groundwater from the closed aerospace plant fell below federal limits.

“The ODEQ's periodic testing of Bethany's groundwater has consistently demonstrated that the groundwater complies with all federal clean water standards,” the companies said in a joint statement.

While TCE found in two of Bethany's city water wells falls below federal limits, high concentrations of the solvent have been found in the groundwater to the west of the old aerospace plant, said Erin Hatfield, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality.

TCE levels are highest in an area west of the old factory, Hatfield said. The area is "quite small," but levels of TCE have been found in excess of eight times the federal limit, she said. The majority of the plume of TCE is about two times the federal limit.

The pollution has migrated from the old Gulfstream plant into two city water wells in Bethany, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that although the aerospace companies knew pollutants from the site were leaching into the groundwater in 2008, they did nothing to inform the city of Bethany about the problem until 2012.

North American Aviation, a predecessor of Rockwell Automation, operated the aircraft manufacturing facility from 1956 until it was taken over by Gulfstream.

The companies said in a joint statement that Rockwell was never a direct owner or operator of the plant at Wiley Post.

The Gulfstream plant employed more than 500 people at its peak, but laid off the last of its workers in 2002 before closing the factory doors and auctioning off all of its equipment. Gulfstream had operated the aircraft manufacturing plant out of a hangar on the south side of Wiley Post Airport since 1982.

Oklahoma City now owns the former Gulfstream property at Wiley Post, and the Airport Trust took control of the closed factory in 2008.

However, Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma City Airport Trust are not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

The Oklahoma City Airport Trust Authority, Gulfstream and Rockwell are all working with the state Department of Environmental Quality to find a way to clean up pollutants from the old aircraft plant, Rockwell and Gulfstream said in a statement.

The companies are installing a containment trench to stop contamination from migrating off the site, said Heidi Fedak, a spokeswoman for Gulfstream Aerospace.

A second plume of the solvent perchloroethylene has also been found in the groundwater near the old aerospace plant at Wiley Post. The chemical, also called PCE, is commonly used in dry cleaning. PCE has been known to increase the risk of cancer and cause neurological problems in humans, according to the EPA.

In its counterclaims, Gulfstream and Rockwell claim the PCE pollution originated from Bethany's sewer pipes.

The Department of Environmental Quality has found no evidence of PCE in Bethany's municipal water supply.

The PCE contamination is up gradient from the Gulfstream and Rockwell site and has not been linked to the former aerospace plant, Hatfield said.

"The source of the PCE contamination is unknown as this time," she said.

The highest concentration of PCE are about six times federal limits in a small area up gradient from the old aerospace plant, but the levels fall below federal limits in the majority of the plume, Hatfield said.

Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey joined The Oklahoman in January 2013 as a business writer. During her time at The Oklahoman, she has walked across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to-south down Western Avenue, and once east-to-west, tracing the old U.S. Route 66.... Read more ›