Despite its cheery name, metaphorical clouds hang over Sunburst, Mont., where the town's 415 residents are grappling with a toxic disaster. About a dozen homes sit atop a gasoline pool that was formed 46 years ago when a Texaco oil refinery leaked just outside town. The underground spill contaminated groundwater and soil and released vapors of benzene, ranked fifth on the federal government's list of "Top 20 Hazardous Materials."
While the company has already mopped up 180,000 gallons of contaminated materials, it says cleaning up the remnants is unnecessary and too costly. "We have done the right thing by cleaning it up to acceptable standards," says Texaco's Sunburst site manager Randy Jewett.
But some citizens argue that's not enough. Fear of lingering effects on public health and property values prompted more than 65 residents to file two civil lawsuits against Texaco this spring.
"They have put my health and my family's health at risk for all those years," says Larry Fauque, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "They are responsible for cleaning it up."
But unless a court orders further cleanup, Texaco is only required to study elevated groundwater levels in an upcoming wet year. If it finds evidence the spill is safe, the state Department of Environmental Quality will give the town a clean bill of health.