Wasteland: How a Gas Leak in Oklahoma Led to a Family Tragedy

Sherry Walls should be able to turn on her gas heater to combat the stinging cold of winter without worrying that she might blow up her house. Her home, on a red brick road in Ponca City, Oklahoma, should be a place where her children can safely sleep.

What there shouldn’t be is a methane leak under her house. There also shouldn’t be so much confusion regarding the source of the flammable gas, which appears to seep up through the floorboards, or who has the authority and the responsibility to clean it up.

“We had a life like what a lot of people wanted,” Walls told me. “We lived paycheck to paycheck but we weren’t struggling.”

Then that life fell apart. A stack of letters, property records, and other documents provided to Fusion’s The Naked Truth investigative team reveal how an insidious gas slowly but steadily unraveled the lives of the Walls family. But this story is about more than one house in Ponca City. It’s also about the human toll of the crusade to prevent the federal government from regulating greenhouse gases like methane. That mission has been carried from Oklahoma to Washington D.C. by one man in particular: Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Sherry Walls family picture: The Walls family. From left to right: father Chris Walls (deceased), Chris, Diamond, Sherry Walls, Kyle (deceased), Justin Walls. Photo Courtesy Sherry Walls

Walls grew up in this Tornado Alley town of about 25,000, with its deep history in the oil and gas industry. The area had suffered environmental problems in the past, but for Walls, Ponca City was home. She and her husband, Chris, moved into their home back in 1998. The couple bought the house in 2006. They had three sons, Christopher, Kyle, and Justin, and in 2010, they had a daughter, Diamond. They worked hard to pay off their mortgage.

In hindsight the warning signs were there. Beginning in the mid-2000s, crews from the local gas company came to inspect the Walls’ property every six months. It was routine, they said. A proactive measure.

Then in 2013, Chris Walls had a major knee surgery and couldn’t work. With his wife taking time off from her job at a nearby video store to care for their daughter, the bills stacked up. They had already filed for bankruptcy a few years earlier.

That was just the beginning.

This story is part of a year-long investigation into EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s environmental legacy in Oklahoma by Fusion’s Naked Truth documentary team. Watch The Naked Truth: Wasteland December 19 at 9 p.m. ET, only on Fusion TV.

On October 10, 2013, an inspection by the gas company detected a methane leak. That was the day the company shut off the family’s gas, fearing an explosion. The couple and their children had to leave. For the next few years, the family was in limbo, moving between hotels and short-term rentals, with financial help from gas and oil companies, the Red Cross, neighbors and friends, all the while trying to get someone to help make their home safe again.

“I just want to move on. I want to come home. I want to sleep in my bed,” Chris Walls told local media about a month after they were forced to move out.

A year into the ordeal, the couple, and another family in a similar situation, wrote to state officials, begging for assistance in finding the source of the leak, as well as any “creative, and equitable solutions.”

The legislature would eventually pass a bill to provide funding to help families like the Walls. Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general was arguably best positioned to find a legal solution to help the Walls, did nothing.

Pruitt’s office responded to her entreaties with a letter asking the couple to submit an official complaint, which Sherry Walls says they did. “I never heard anything else back from Scott Pruitt’s office,” she said. Nearly two years later, Pruitt would file a lawsuit against the Obama administration to block the EPA’s regulation of methane, one of 14 lawsuits he filed against the agency before he became its administrator. For Pruitt, the federal government was intruding on the states, which were better equipped to handle such issues on the ground.

The Walls’ home in Ponca City sits across the street from the Phillips 66 refinery, formerly owned by ConocoPhillips, and before that, Conoco. As of 2015, the EPA had rated the facility over 80 times more risky to human health than the industry average. A nearby school closed in the 1970s when dozens of students were hospitalized after inhaling toxic fumes. In 1990, Conoco bought out 400 of the homes in the neighborhood after residents sued over the plant’s alleged contamination of their groundwater. The company did not admit any liability in the suit or subsequent settlement.

Today, empty lots, parks, and riverbanks are spotted with flags warning of gas pipelines below. In recent years, scientists have found carcinogens like benzene, a chemical often associated with oil refineries, lurking in the groundwater.

No one could pinpoint the source of the Walls’ methane leak. Oklahoma Natural Gas, the family’s gas provider, did its own testing and determined that the leak was not coming from its lines. So, the case was handed over to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), the state agency that regulates oil and gas. State inspectors came out but couldn’t identify the source, and even if they had, the state had no laws to regulate leaks from greenhouse gases like methane, even though two years before Pruitt, as attorney general, had asked the Obama administration to leave such matters up to Oklahoma.

Soon after the leak was detected, Chris Walls started experimenting with the dirt outside his house, which state regulators told him was contaminated. When he put a lighter to it, it would catch fire. He started a Facebook page called “Wastelands in the Heartland,” documenting the plight of his family and another facing a similar situation in nearby Owasso, OK.

In her diary, Sherry Walls described day 100 of being homeless, when her husband decided to dig under his house and investigate for himself. “I’m at work and start seeing pics of a big hole in my bedroom and read that the dirt is flammable,” she wrote. “I start freaking out ‘cause he has our daughter over there with him. But I also understand his frustration because the OCC is not going to do no more than they have to.”

The day after her husband started digging, Sherry Walls wrote that the OCC had called her husband, “basically begging him to stop what he was doing and just get out of the house. [The OCC rep] was telling him this stuff is very dangerous. Yet we keep getting told there’s no potential danger. Which is it?”

Initially, Oklahoma Natural Gas and the Red Cross helped pay for the family’s hotel stays. Then Phillips 66, which had spun off from ConocoPhillips and currently owns the refinery, paid for a week. Then ConocoPhillips picked up the tab.

ConocoPhillips provided an oil well map to the state showing up to six abandoned oil wells located near the family’s property. It kept paying the family’s hotel costs for several months, offering to lease their house with an option to buy. The Walls refused because they wanted to return to their home and didn’t feel the offer was enough.

Then, on day 134, ConocoPhillips stopped paying. The company said it was not responsible for the leak.

“As a goodwill gesture, ConocoPhillips paid a portion of lodging expenses for the Walls family during this investigation period,” company spokesman Daren Beaudo told me in an email. “While we understand the frustration the family has experienced, we feel we acted responsibly and compassionately to an issue that ultimately was determined to not be ours.”

Not knowing what to do next, Sherry Walls called the family’s bankruptcy attorney, who was trying to find the couple another attorney who could help them with the gas leak.

As Sherry wrote in her diary, the bankruptcy attorney’s response to her call was that “no one sees money in this unless someone becomes terminally ill or dies.”

That attorney “said he hasn’t given up trying to get us an attorney, but being honest no one sees money in this unless someone becomes terminally ill or dies,” Sherry wrote. “So, it will take a tragedy before anyone will care was my comment to him, and he said unfortunately yes.”

The first tragedy struck hundreds of miles away from Ponca City.

On the morning of October 24, 2016, in the barracks of Fort Carson, Colorado, soldiers found the body of Kyle Walls, 21, on the bathroom floor. The cause of death was suicide by hanging.

Kyle had only been in the military for 11 months, having left his then-homeless family in Ponca City to serve his country.

An Army investigation determined that a series of personal issues, along with an “undetectably poor mental state,” contributed to Kyle’s death. Five days before his suicide, Kyle transferred his $50,000 life insurance policy away from his wife, with whom he was having issues, to his mother, documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request show.

“I had seen the difference… It was like, ‘Are you okay, son?’ and he’d just say, ‘Yeah, I’m okay,’” said Sherry Walls. “He just wasn’t himself.”

At the time of Kyle’s death, the family had already returned home. No one recommended they return, but if they did, the OCC warned they should switch to all electric appliances. The gas company wouldn’t resume service. There would be no central heating, even on the 20 degree nights.

That’s when the state legislature stepped in and passed a law to provide money for assistance in the case of the Walls’ home, and for similar cases. With it, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission set up a $30,000 ventilator in the house to reduce indoor methane levels. It didn’t work.

“When we came, we got headaches and we felt also we could taste something in our mouth,” said Sherry.

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Chris and Sherry with their son: Sherry and the late Chris Walls with their late son Kyle. Photo Courtesy Sherry Walls

According to the National Institute of Health, in confined areas at high enough concentrations, methane is an asphyxiant, displacing the oxygen needed for breathing. In such instances, it can cause headaches, dizziness, and even a loss of consciousness. At the highest rate measured, the methane coming out of the ground under the Walls’ home was nearly the equivalent to what you would see from a commercial gas well, said George Schwarz, a field inspector for the OCC. It’s unclear if the concentration at the Walls’ home was ever high enough to produce the symptoms the family reported.

Methane is odorless, but as it comes to the surface, other chemicals ride along, carcinogens like benzene with smell and taste. When a team from The Naked Truth visited, they, like the family, experienced the metallic taste as soon as they walked through the door.

Schwarz, who had gotten to know the family through the years of inspections, often swapped theories about the leak with Chris Walls. But after his son’s death, Chris became overwhelmed.

“We were both such different people from losing our son,” said Sherry Walls. “You’re just not the same person when you lose a child, especially at 21-years-old.”

As the Walls moved back home in Ponca City, federal methane regulations were moving forward in Washington. In 2007, the EPA lost a Supreme Court battle in which the Bush administration argued it lacked authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The court disagreed, saying that under the Clean Air Act, the feds must regulate gases like methane and CO2.

Federal regulations would help cases at the local level, because states must follow federal guidelines. They could also mean more state funding to help families like the Walls, since federal funds would be funneled to states to offset the cost of the additional oversight of oil and gas operations.

The Obama administration took the court at its word. Yet in 2011, as the administration was slated to start regulating methane, it ran up against Oklahoma attorney general Pruitt, who protested the forthcoming regulations. The Obama administration pressed on, and in June 2016, it finalized its signature rules on methane emissions “from both new and existing sources in the oil and gas sector.”

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Looking at floor: Sherry Walls, family friend Clay Pemberton and Fusion’s Natasha del Toro during a shoot for the forthcoming documentary Wasteland, in the Walls residence. Photo: The Naked Truth

Two months later, Pruitt joined a lawsuit filed by a dozen states against the EPA, once more arguing the responsibility to regulate belonged with them.

On his way out of office, the Obama administration added another requirement: an “Information Collection Request” for oil and gas companies to give the EPA more data about methane emissions to better inform decisions about regulations.

In March 2017, weeks after he took over the EPA, Pruitt withdrew that request, a move oil and gas lobbyists in Oklahoma quickly thanked him for. He also pushed to delay the Obama administration’s earlier regulations, a move a federal judge called “arbitrary, capricious, and in excess of statutory authority.” Undeterred, Pruitt moved again to delay the regulations by creating a new rule altogether. The delay could go into effect as soon as January 2018.

Meanwhile, in early December, the Department of the Interior kicked off a separate process to delay methane waste prevention rules.

The Walls family continued in a state of uncertainty as they watched the larger fight play out in Washington, until again, the unthinkable happened.

On Father’s Day 2017, Chris Walls hung himself in the family garage.

Neither her husband nor her son left her a note, but Sherry Walls partly blamed their living situation for the tragedy.

“I feel like it took a lot of his manhood away, that he didn’t feel like the husband and the father to support his family when we were running around from one hotel to rental to a hotel,” she said.

“We all know something is seriously wrong. How much longer do I have to fight?”

Ken Hill, Chris Walls’ boss at a local company that works on water and gas pipelines, recalled how Walls would have to leave work abruptly to deal with a situation at home. His son Kyle’s death was the the last straw. “He never got over it,” Hill said.

In October of this year, Schwarz returned to test around the home again and take readings. The methane was still there despite the ventilator.

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” Schwarz told Sherry Walls. Aside from continuing to take readings, there was he could do.

The idea that states have robust regulatory bodies able to deal with environmental issues has long been a staple of Pruitt’s argument against the federal government stepping in. But there are some big holes in that philosophy.

First, methane emissions are not typically regulated by state agencies. Only four states—Colorado, Wyoming, California and Ohio—have regulations that address methane leaks, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. The OCC’s search for the source of the leak at the Walls’ home was outside the purview of the agency’s typical work.

Even if a state like Oklahoma had a mandate to regulate methane, it might not have the money to take action. A school in the northern city of Pawhuska is dealing with a methane leak so severe that the governor declared it a “State of Emergency.” Several homes in the Tulsa area have had leaks. Many other cases likely go undetected. But this year Oklahoma only has about $60,000 set aside for such cases. Budgets in the state are being cut, not increased, due in part to low tax rates on oil and gas production.

Slashing the EPA’s budget, as Trump and Pruitt have proposed, would leave the feds with less money to disperse to states that need help.

OCC spokesman Matt Skinner said he was still committed to finding a way to help the Walls family, even as he called their situation horrific.

“There’s no other word for it,” he said. “Of all the cases, of all the things that you wish you could fix, this is certainly ….the one that we want desperately to.”

Sherry Walls, her 16-year-old son Justin, and 7-year-old daughter Diamond, as well as their two dogs, their cat, and two parakeets, are preparing for their second winter back in the home, going to Girls Scouts meetings and cross country practices, and struggling to stay warm with a wooden pellet stove and two electric heaters in lieu of having no gas service.

Walls still suspects the leak comes from the nearby abandoned wells, or even one that hasn’t been identified, but with no clear evidence, she can’t get a lawyer to take her case. She can’t sell the house. Who would buy it? They could give up everything and walk away, but where to?

“We all know something is seriously wrong,” Walls said. “How much longer do I have to fight?”

The Naked Truth producers Connie Fossi and Kristofer Ríos, and correspondent Natasha Del Toro, contributed to this story.

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