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Oklahoma judge says suit over Superfund site audit can proceed

PICHER, Okla. – An Oklahoma district judge has ruled that a lawsuit seeking the release of an investigative audit into the cleanup of a Superfund site can go forward.

The Tar Creek Superfund site is one of the most polluted areas on the planet. The water in Tar Creek water runs red with poisonous lead. The chat piles, man-made mountains of toxic bedrock, loom. The land surface is at risk of collapsing into cavernous mine structures below.

It has been a decade since the federal government first declared the area uninhabitable. The towns of Picher and Cardin were both abandoned by their residents.

“It’s the largest Superfund site in Oklahoma,” Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality Executive Director Scott Thompson told News 4 in October.

In 2011, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested an audit into suspected unlawful contracting practices by the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Trust at the Superfund site. Pruitt later declined to file charges and ordered that the audit not be released.

In 2015, the auditor’s office asked Pruitt to authorize the release of the audit under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

Pruitt denied the request stating, “Our office is concerned about publication of unsubstantiated criminal allegations against private citizens.” The auditor’s office disputed Pruitt’s rationale, stating that they were not aware of “any unsubstantiated claims” and that “the individuals named in the report are members of a public trust or a contractor whose services were retained as part of this substantive project.”

In November, the watchdog group 'Campaign for Accountability' made an Open Records request of the auditor’s office for the records. In response, the auditor explained that he wanted to release the records, but had been instructed not to do so by the AG’s office. The group then filed a request for the records directly with the AG’s office, which denied the request.

After that, the group filed a lawsuit.

 

On Friday, Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish denied a motion from Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, who was seeking to dismiss the lawsuit.

Hunter said the release of an investigative audit that didn't lead to criminal charges could "tarnish the reputation of innocent Oklahomans," according to the Associated Press.

Last month,  Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones requested that a court order him to release the 2011 audit concerning the Superfund site.

Jones even accused the attorney general's office of covering up corruption at the site "by withholding a public document, paid for with public funds and conducted on behalf of the public."

Jones alleges that the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust "spent over $3.6 million on a project when the cost could have been less than $600,000."

Jones also says Pruitt, who is now the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, acted improperly when he decided to show the audit to the trust's attorney.