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Toxic Chemical Underground Forces Changes To OKC Road Project

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Prior to regulations, they disposed of their laboratory waste on site, in a trench on the north side of the facility. Prior to regulations, they disposed of their laboratory waste on site, in a trench on the north side of the facility.
OKLAHOMA CITY -

A toxic chemical buried beneath the ground forces changes to a major metro road project.

Workers widening State Highway 74 in northwest Oklahoma City are dealing with contamination from a facility that once handled radioactive material.

The old Kerr-McGee technical facility, now Tronox, is located at 3301 N.W. 150th St., just to the east of Highway 74, Portland Avenue, between N.W. 150th and 164th. Just under Highway 74, moving slowly west and south, is something Kerr-McGee unknowingly left behind, Chloroform gas.

Prior to regulations, they disposed of their laboratory waste on site, in a trench on the north side of the facility.

DEQ officials say Kerr-McGee burned the waste. Only problem, they say, chloroform doesn't burn.

"They probably were not thinking that it was dangerous at the time, but we've learned a lot since the 1960s," said Rita Kottke with the Department of Environmental Quality.

What ODOT learned in the 2000's was that the chloroform had spread. Readings from a couple dozen monitoring wells show the plume's present location right under Highway 74.

The chloroform levels aren't high enough to pose a hazard to the driving public. Any danger would be to construction workers digging into the soil for the widening project.

Because chloroform is actually heavier than air, and if you cut into an area that had chloroform, there would be a potential for it to gather in that trench, and if anyone was working in that trench, it could affect them.

Such exposure could cause dizziness, nausea. In much higher concentrations, chloroform can cause memory loss, even death.

"We certainly recognize that an area like this, and conversations like this could alarm people," ODOT Spokesperson Terri Angier said.

That's why ODOT says it is taking every precaution, including shifting the alignment of the highway, slightly to the west and modifying the project's design so as to minimize digging.

"Instead of digging, we're adding and building the grade up, so we won't need to be really disturbing any soil unnecessarily, or any groundwater," Angier said.

These steps, along with the use of an environmental consultant during construction, will add somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 to the project's $27 million price tag.

ODOT says it's a small price to pay to make sure there's no harm, in any way.

Both ODOT and DEQ say Tronox is fully cooperating. They are monitoring and reporting the chloroform levels quarterly, and have set up a system that essentially prevents any additional chloroform from migrating off-site, all at their own expense.

The project will go out for bids a year from now.

We're told the contamination won't delay the project. Also, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed there is no trace of any lingering radioactivity from the Kerr-McGee facility.

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