Robert Hughes / Zuma Press

In Halliburton’s hometown, oil giant is both hero and menace

Duncan, Oklahoma, prominently displays a statue of Erle P. Halliburton, but pollution has sparked lawsuits

Pee Wee and Charlotte Owens at the Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City.
Juliana Keeping

DUNCAN, Okla. — Voris “Pee Wee” Owens and his wife, Charlotte Owens, used to love to sit together on their back porch, looking out over their nearly 4 acres of land, the geese and mallards in the pond, the goats that kept the lawn as tidy as a city park, the racehorses that Pee Wee trained and a large garden that yielded so much produce that the couple shared the bounty with neighbors and almost never bought vegetables at the store. He filled his pond and watered his animals and garden with the water from their well, which was also the couple’s source of drinking water.

Since moving to the property in 1987, the land and little home on it had been the Owens’ paradise. But from their vantage point on the back porch, the couple saw troubling things too. Smoke plumes rose from the fenced-in Halliburton property locals call the North 40, less than a half mile west of their house in semirural northern Duncan, Oklahoma. Twice in the 1990s, Pee Wee stocked the pond with fish, but they all turned belly up. His horses refused to drink from the pond. Some of his nanny goats had so many stillborn kids, he lost count, and a few of the newborn goats couldn’t move their legs.

What the Owenses didn’t know is that Halliburton carried out Cold War–era work cleaning solid rocket fuel from spent missile casings for the Department of Defense and burned the fuel in open, unlined pits from 1965 to 1991. In 1988 the company acknowledged in a letter to the state health department that ammonium perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, leached into the groundwater at the site — a disclosure that was not publicized at the time.

The company alerted the Owenses and their neighbors to the contamination 23 years later, in 2011, when tests conducted by Halliburton contractors showed perchlorate had leached into groundwater beyond the barbed-wire-topped fences that hem the Halliburton property and into 60 private wells, including the Owenses’. Perchlorate is linked to hypothyroidism, and unborn babies are especially vulnerable to it.

Of the 60 homes with perchlorate-tainted wells, the company has purchased a patchwork 17 homes south and southeast of the site for $3.9 million, Stephens County property records show. Sales records show Halliburton often paid double or triple the assessed value. Residents who sold their properties signed confidentiality agreements as part of individual settlements and agreed to drop claims, the records indicate.

In the meantime, Halliburton connected other affected residents to the city water supply. But Duncan’s public drinking water is tainted with trihalomethanes, chemical compounds that are byproducts of the chlorination process and are linked to an increased risk of cancer. The Owenses, on the advice of their family doctor, drink only bottled water now, which they pay for themselves.

The Owenses are plaintiffs in one of at least 15 ongoing lawsuits against the company; claims include personal injury, property damage and loss of property value.

The two don’t sit contentedly on the back porch any longer. The pond was low until a recent deluge of rain alleviated drought conditions throughout the state; the garden is gone; they have sold the horses. Pee Wee Owens, 74, takes medication for hypothyroidism and depression. Charlotte Owens, 68, has been battling cancer since 2012.

The North 40 contaminated not only the Owenses’ well, but the way of life for the couple, married 52 years.

The retired trucker shook his head.

“My stomach’s torn up all the time,” he said. “I can’t sleep anymore.”


As a boy, Voris Owens was called Shorty, then Little Bit. Eventually, his nickname became Pee Wee. He didn’t mind, because he never much liked his real name. At 11, he bought a bike with paper route money, a red Hawthorne from Montgomery Ward. 

Riding it near a small airstrip in Duncan in the early 1950s, his front wheel hit a rut. He fell off his bike and toppled head over heels at least three times, nearly rolling right into 

Erle P. Halliburton, the founder of the Halliburton Co.

Halliburton carried the barely conscious, bloodied child to his Jeep and drove him home to his mother. 

Later that day, Halliburton went back to check on the boy. He returned the bike, which had been repaired. 

Today, decades later, Owens remembered these events in vivid detail. Halliburton’s generosity was a rarity for Owens, who grew up poor.

That summer, Halliburton told Owens to come to him when he turned 18 so he could find a proper job for the young man. Owens grew up, and, after a stint training racehorses in California, returned to Duncan and a job at Halliburton, spending most of his working years driving trucks for contractors. He and Charlotte married, and the couple had four children. At times he worked two jobs to provide for his family.

A statue honoring Erle P. Halliburton in Duncan Memorial Park on U.S. Highway 81.
Robert Hughes / Zuma Press

A statue of Halliburton’s founder stands in the center of downtown Duncan. Working for the company remains a source of pride for many in the city.

 Founded in Duncan in 1919, the company has since moved its North American headquarters to Houston.

 The multinational entity is one of the world’s largest suppliers of oilfield services and equipment to the energy industry. The company reported its revenues grew nearly 15 percent in 2014, to $8.77 billion, but it’s not clear what 2015 holds for it. In February, Halliburton said it would eliminate at least 5,000 jobs in response to plunging oil prices.

Erle P. Halliburton was good to labor, to people, to the little guy, Pee Wee Owens said. He bears no malice toward Halliburton the company, because of its founder’s kindness toward him. Erle P. Halliburton died in 1957, a giant among men.

Pee Wee Owens, like when he crashed his bike, is hurting again. But he doubts that Halliburton the giant company will help him now.

“The laws are made for the big boys,” he said. “All I’d like is a little justice here. I’d like to get a decent deal. Enough to take care of my kids’ inheritance, as far as what they’re going to lose on property value.”

Owens is losing patience and losing hope.

“We're nothing but bags of meat to Halliburton,” he said.

Company spokeswoman Susie McMichael declined to comment on any aspect of this story, citing ongoing litigation. The Owenses’ attorneys also declined to comment on the case.

The North 40

A Halliburton facility in Duncan in 2007.
Robert Hughes / Zuma Press

Randy Walls, 60, worked for Halliburton and its subcontractors for nearly 30 years from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, sometimes on faraway assignments in the United Arab Emirates and Ecuador. His work mostly revolved around hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. During the fracking process, chemicals, sand and water are injected in the ground at high pressure to crack open layers of rock and release gas or oil inside. Specifically, his work entailed cementing — sealing the ring between the well casing and the drilled hole with cement. The aim of cementing is to control corrosion and stabilize the well, pipe and rock formation while it’s fracked for oil and natural gas. He often blended sand and chemicals for fracking operations.

Sometimes he was called to help with cleaning rocket fuel from spent missile casings the North 40, he said from his home in Comanche, about 10 miles south of Duncan.

He recalled how each missile casing was hoisted into the air so water could be shot in at high pressure. Red, rubbery pieces of spent rocket fuel, some granular and others as big as a shoe, would fall to a concrete slab. The same water cycled through again and again. He said he and other workers then looked into each missile and felt to make sure the inside was clean, scooping out any remaining material.

“They had to be perfectly clean,” he said of the missile casings. “That’s the way they wanted them.”

He said that he never wore gloves, a mask or any other protective gear and that the job soaked the workers.

“In cutting the fuel out of the solid rocket boosters, we were never told there was any danger with that,” he said.

Walls doesn’t recall any signs or educational materials that warned of potentially hazardous chemicals in the rocket fuel or of any other contamination on the site.

In a separate endeavor on the same site during the 1980s, workers at the North 40 attempted to decontaminate racks that had held uranium nuclear fuel rods. Twenty-one racks were shipped from the Ft. Calhoun nuclear reactor in Nebraska to the North 40 to be cleaned and sold as scrap metal in 1983 and 1984, according to 2011 correspondence to Duncan residents from Halliburton that residents showed to an Al Jazeera America reporter. Workers burned their contaminated coveralls and gloves in outdoor pits. The company discontinued the program in 1985; workers torch-cut the racks into pieces and sent them to a South Carolina facility for disposal, the letter states.

In a February 2013 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Halliburton stated, “To date, soil and groundwater sampling relating to the allegations discussed above has confirmed that the alleged nuclear or radioactive material is confined to the soil in a discrete area of the on site operations and is not presently believed to be in the groundwater on site or in any areas off site.”

The waste disposal practices related to the cleaning of U.S. military missile casings at the North 40 — using water to remove spent rocket fuel, dumping the waste in open pits and then burning it — were once commonplace before the enactment of key environmental laws, like the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, according to interviews with Department of Defense officials in a 2010 report by the United States Government Accountability Office.

An ongoing federal lawsuit alleges the company continued with such practices years after that act was passed. It states that while Halliburton knew the unlined burn pits were an environmental problem in the late 1980s, the company kept using them until the early 1990s.

The perchlorate problem

Barbara Wilkinson with a map showing perchlorate levels in the North 40.
Juliana Keeping

Perchlorate remains unregulated by the Safe Water Drinking Act, the federal law meant to protect the nation’s drinking water supply.

 Perchlorate is colorless and odorless; the naturally occurring and man-made chemical is a main ingredient in rocket fuels, munitions, fireworks and flares, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can also be present in bleach and fertilizers. It mixes easily with water, doesn't break down in water or soil and bypasses drinking water filtration systems. 

In the human body, perchlorate affects the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that secretes hormones that regulate development and growth.

Perchlorate interferes with the thyroid’s ability to make hormones that control metabolism and hurts the body’s ability to absorb iodine, which can result in a condition called hypothyroidism. The chemical’s effect on the thyroid has been well documented since the 1940s, according to Elizabeth Pearce, an endocrinologist with Boston Medical Center.

“It makes you exhausted all the time,” said Pee Wee Owens, who has taken medication for hypothyroidism since the mid-2000s. “You’re wrung out. You get weak. You don’t have no get up and go.”

Unborn children and infants are the most sensitive to perchlorate exposure, since hormones produced by the thyroid also guide neurological development in a growing body. A 2014 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism followed 487 mother-child pairs. The 50 women with the highest levels of perchlorate in their bodies had children with lower IQs compared with other children, said Pearce, a study author.

“In mothers with severe hypothyroidism, there can be profound effects on the child’s IQ. Even at mildly low exposure, there are detectable effects on child IQ,” she said.

Perchlorate “has been found in water and other media at varying levels in 45 states, as well as in the food supply,” according to a 2010 report issued by the Governmental Accountability Office. Larger exposures commonly stem from the operations of the federal government — the Department of Defense, NASA and the Department of Energy.

Despite perchlorate’s omnipresence, a clear safety threshold for exposure doesn’t yet exist, Pearce said. “We’re all exposed at a low level, she said. “It’s been unclear at low levels whether there are truly human effects.”

The long-term consequences of exposure have not been studied, she said. 

The science that detects perchlorate continues to evolve. Although perchlorate contamination was first found at Superfund sites in California in 1985, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that science could detect perchlorate in the water at lower levels.

Despite some unanswered questions, the Environmental Protection Agency placed perchlorate on a list of unregulated contaminants with a risk of causing public-health concern in drinking water and set a health advisory of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in 2008. The EPA announced intentions develop drinking water regulations in 2011, an ongoing process.

“What the EPA is struggling with is the limited data to suggest at what level this becomes meaningful from a public health perspective,” Pearce said.

Some states aren’t waiting around; Massachusetts set a standard of 2 ppb in 2006 and in California, perchlorate can't exceed readings of 6 ppb in the drinking water supply.

In Duncan, Halliburton tested its own drinking water well at the North 40 in 1988 and found 2,500 ppb of perchlorate in the water.

“We are not aware of any migration of this [perchlorate] ion to other wells in the area,” the 1988 letter from Halliburton to a state health department official states.

An Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) e-mail filed as evidence in an ongoing federal lawsuit indicates Halliburton knew about contamination problems at the site in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2011 that Halliburton disclosed contamination beyond its fences to nearby residents and entered into a clean-up agreement with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. Halliburton consultants tested 360 residential wells in the area, finding perchlorate contamination exceeding the EPA’s interim health advisory level of 15 ppb in 29 private wells — the highest one with 52,000 ppb, according to ODEQ spokeswoman Skylar McElhaney. An additional 31 wells had lower levels of contamination, including the Owenses’, whose well contamination registered at 2 ppb, ODEQ records obtained under state open records laws show.

A December 2014 letter sent from the ODEQ to Halliburton filed as evidence in one of the ongoing lawsuits shows the state is “not in agreement” with the company’s evaluation of the residential wells and wants more testing at varying depths.

Ray Roberts, the environmental programs manager for the ODEQ, said Halliburton is working with the state on the cleanup. The state hasn’t issued any fines against the company.

“The goal is compliance,” he said.

To date, the clean-up has not begun on the polluted groundwater in residents’ wells, said Tim Ward, an assistant director with external affairs with the ODEQ.

 It’s not yet clear when it will begin; Halliburton is pilot-testing cleanup methods this summer, according to Jon Reid, an ODEQ environmental programs specialist.

Some settle, others ‘stuck’

The North 40, on Osage Road in Duncan.
Juliana Keeping

Signs ward off potential trespassers at homes purchased by Halliburton in the semirural area south and southeast of the North 40. Security guards in white Halliburton trucks drive among empty homes with well-kept yards.

 A 2013 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows Halliburton has spent more than $25 million in its initial response to the pollutants on its northern Duncan site. While the company has likely spent more by now, officials have not disclosed the amount.

Al Jazeera America located 14 of the 17 purchased homes’ well readings in ODEQ documents obtained through state open records laws. Those records indicate the homes purchased by Halliburton had wells with perchlorate readings of 17 to 40,000 ppb.

Down the street from the Owenses, Barbara Wilkinson lives in a ranch home with her husband.

 She said tests conducted by Halliburton show that while her well is contaminated with perchlorate — ODEQ records show a 2011 reading of 1.3 ppb —  Halliburton has indicated it’s not contaminated enough for the company to buy her home.

She wants to move, but when she called a real estate agent, he laughed at her.

“‘You couldn’t give this house away,’” she recalled him saying.

“We’re just stuck,” she said.

Halliburton extended the municipal water supply, which was not contaminated by perchlorate, to residents with affected wells like Wilkinson and pays those residents’ water bills — but that hasn’t solved their water woes.

 Duncan sent notices to residents in late 2014 that the city water supply is polluted with trihalomethanes, chemical compounds that are byproducts of the chlorination process. The city warned residents that the water is unsafe to drink for the elderly, infants and those whose immune systems are compromised. Excess exposure over “many years” may increase the risk of having cancer or cause problems with liver, kidneys or central nervous system, states the letter sent to Duncan residents.

 The city did not return calls for comment.

Wilkinson said she and her husband drink bottled water they buy themselves.

Sitting on a couch in her living room in northern Duncan, she holds up a map that features a multicolored plume indicating perchlorate levels and points to her house. Next to her sits a pile of documents as thick as a phone book. It contains newspaper articles, plume maps and letters from Halliburton and from Duncan officials. 

She has lost patience and accuses Halliburton of delays, echoing the sentiments of several others who live in the area but did not want to speak on the record.

“Halliburton is a big corporation,” Wilkinson said. “I know they have the money to wait everybody out, wait until everybody’s dead. They know what they’re doing.”

Life goes on

Piano music emanates from the lobby of the Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City on a March day, where Charlotte Owens went with Pee Wee Owens for her three-month checkup. Her doctor has been watching a spot on her liver; the best outcome today, she said, is that she’s cancer-free. The struggle has been an expensive one, wiping out the Owenses’ retirement savings and more. 

But with a postretirement gig training truckers, Pee Wee Owens is proud that the cancer bills are paid up.

Charlotte Owens was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. Perchlorate contamination has not been linked to cancer, but in their Duncan neighborhood, there is debate as to whether residents were exposed to radiation from the North 40 during the 1980s, when workers tried to dismantle racks that held spent nuclear fuel rods.

Pee Wee Owens said his attorneys dropped his medical claim after a Halliburton doctor diagnosed him with an autoimmune disease commonly tied to hypothyroidism. The couple still has claims pending related to property damage.

“We’re not lawyers,” Charlotte Owens said. “We got enough sense to know they done something to harm us. No telling what that’s cost.”

Seven plaintiffs initially filed medical claims related to perchlorate exposure in the federal lawsuit.

The Owenses and their neighbors can’t help but wonder, as the years drag on, and their cases hit delay after delay after delay, if something in the air, or ground or water has made them ill.

The couple worries about the rocket fuel chemicals consumed from their well water, and now “The city water is poison,” Pee Wee Owens said. 

“Our doctor told us not to drink it,” said Charlotte Owens.

Back at home, Pee Wee Owens looked out his back window at the nearly empty pond, seeing not the life the two of them built for their family but what has been taken away.

 The Owenses’ attorneys wrote in a December 2012 letter that they anticipated the Owens could get $65,000 if the couple settled with Halliburton. Two years later, Halliburton offered to settle the Owenses’ claims for $60,000, a September 2014 letter states.

 The couple rejected the offer. With attorney fees, Pee Wee Owens calculated, he and his wife would not bank half of that. It’s not enough for what’s been lost, he said. He said Halliburton should also pay for any court costs he has incurred.

The Owenses’ case is pending, along with the cases of dozens of other plaintiffs.

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