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Sunburst's Texaco refinery

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In 1922 oil was discovered in the Kevin-Sunburst oil fields in Montana. In 1924 a small refinery was opened to process the crude oil. Texaco acquired the refinery in 1928 and became know for producing lead gasoline during and after WWII. On July 30, 1955, Melvin Linnell tries to light his hot-water heater and is burned in an explosion in his basement. His house is 300 feet from the Sunburst Works refinery. Texaco traces the explosion to a leak in an underground pipeline at the refinery. Subsequently, residents of another home 750 feet north of the refinery report gasoline and water seeping into their basement. Between 1955-1957, Texaco recovers 4,344 barrels, or 182,448 gallons, of gasoline, some mixed with water, from underneath Sunburst's neighborhoods. (see Great Falls Tribune).

Picture: Sunburst's Texaco refinery, shown here during the early 1950s, was an important source of gasoline for WW II efforts, but today it is completely gone except for a legacy of injury, litigation and polluted soil. (TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO).

Sunburst timeline (from Great Falls Tribune)

1912- Sunburst founded and named for how the sun bursts over the Sweet Grass Hills at dawn.

1922- Oil is discovered in the rich Kevin-Sunburst oil fields.

1924- L.B. and John O'Neil open a small refinery on 9.3 acres immediately south of Sunburst. The refinery processes 500 barrels of crude oil, or 21,000 gallons, a day.

1926- The refinery capacity increases to 1,200 barrels per day. The O'Neils sell their interests to California Petroleum Co.

1928- The Texas Co., now Texaco, acquires California Petroleum.

July 30, 1955- Melvin Linnell is burned in an explosion in his basement, 300 feet from the Sunburst Works refinery as he tries to light his hot-water heater. In the days following, Texaco traces the explosion to a leak in an underground pipeline at the refinery. Residents of another home 750 feet north of the refinery report gasoline and water seeping into their basement. Texaco drills 36 boreholes and 48 trenches to investigate the leak and stop it from spreading.

1955-1957- Texaco recovers 4,344 barrels, or 182,448 gallons, of gasoline, some mixed with water, from underneath Sunburst's neighborhoods.

Late 1956- Gasoline cleanup efforts are phased out, except at two locations near the Linnells and a home with gasoline in the basement.

1957- Texaco announces plans to close the refinery, which covers roughly 380 acres and has an operating capacity of 8,000 barrels a day. At the time, the refinery employs 105 people and Sunburst is a bustling oil town of 845 residents.

1961- Texaco closes the refinery and sells it to a joint venture of Pacific Hide and Fur, a Great Falls salvage company and Schnitzer Steel Products of Portland, Ore. The refinery is demolished.

1967- The joint venture sells the refinery site to Creed Davis, who later sells portions of the property to local residents. That year, Texaco stops its quarterly monitoring of wells near the site of the explosion.

1973- Texaco inspects the wells for the last time, but no evidence of serious gasoline contamination is found. Months later, the wells are plugged and abandoned.

1984- Federal Superfund laws are re-authorized, prompting the state to identify potential sites. The Montana Department of Health and Environmental Services conducts a preliminary study and site history report in Sunburst, and concludes further investigation is needed.

1985- The federal Environmental Protection Agency starts a site inspection and sampling investigation at the former refinery site.

1986- The EPA decides the refinery site does not qualify as a federal Superfund site and hands the case back to the state.

1989- The MDHES issues Texaco an administrative order to conduct a remedial investigation and feasibility study at the old refinery site.

1993- Texaco removes 700 cubic yards of asbestos-contaminated material from the old refinery site — five times more than the original estimate.

January 1998- Texaco requests a waiver on cleaning up soil and groundwater contaminated by the gas plume — which remains trapped under Sunburst — from the 1955 spill.

June 1998 - The Montana Department of Environmental Quality, formerly MDHES, denies the waiver, citing insufficient information about the extent of the plume.

1999- Texaco buys back three plots of contaminated property on the refinery site, totaling 30 acres.

October 2000 - Texaco submits to the DEQ an underground investigation and indoor air sampling survey on the extent of the plume. The survey concludes it has not migrated more than half a block in 45 years and does not pose a health threat.

February 2001 - A lawsuit filed in state District Court in Great Falls claims thousands of people could have been exposed to dangerous chemicals from the refinery site and the gas plume. The suit seeks punitive damages.

June 2003— The DEQ recommends letting nature clean up the toxic plume under Sunburst, instead of relying on a multi-million dollar vacuuming operation to do the job.

August 2004- A Cascade County jury orders Chevron/Texaco to pay $15.1 million to the town of Sunburst to cover cleanup costs of the plume, and another $25 million to the approximately 80 plaintiffs for punitive damages. The oil company appeals the ruling.

Spring 2006— The DEQ moves forward with a remediation plan and begins testing soil samples and homes for signs of dangerous fumes.

August 2007 — The Montana Supreme Court affirms the $15 million for cleanup costs, plus another $1 million in interest, but asks the state court to again consider the punitive damages. Chevron/Texaco and the plaintiffs later settle out of court for an undisclosed amount.

October 2008- A family who ranches northwest of the closed Texaco gasoline refinery in Sunburst sues the company, saying their land and underground water was polluted by oil leaking from storage tanks. The case is set for trial in June 2010.

Spring and summer 2009 — Water Environmental Technologies, the private company hired by the plaintiffs, begins cleanup work of the 3rd Avenue plume. Meanwhile, Chevron — under the direction of the DEQ — launches a series of tests, including a 1,000 soil samples and 200 wells.

External Links

Montana DEQ - Texaco Sunburst Works Refinery Facility Fact Sheet

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