Bill Mullins blames naturally occurring radioactive material for deformities that created a freakish kitten with two heads, six legs and two tails.
The eastern Kentucky man keeps the dead feline in a jar, pulling it out for show-and-tell when he talks about radiation in this mountain community where oil producers sucked radium out of the ground along with the once-plentiful crude.
"There's not a doubt in my mind what caused this," Mullins said of his grotesque exhibit. "There are just too many things adding up."
People around this Appalachian community fear Mullins may be right. They have been gathering for weekly meetings in a local church to discuss their concerns. They scan their homes and property for radiation. And when someone is diagnosed with cancer, they wonder if their surroundings are to blame.
To find out if such fears are warranted, Kentucky health officials plan to conduct a study comparing the incidence of illnesses around the Martha oil fields to other parts of eastern Kentucky that do not have radiation contamination.
The low-level radiation from the Martha oil field was discovered in 1988, when some old pipes from Ashland Inc. tripped a scrap yard's radiation detectors. The naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, was carried to the surface when wells in the Martha oil field were injected with pressurized water to force out crude.
Ashland, the company that operated the oil wells, contends radiation in the Martha oil fields is of such a low level that it is harmless, especially after a major cleanup that removed contaminated soil.
Residents disagree. About 100 of them have filed lawsuits against Ashland seeking compensation for alleged health and property damages.
"Whether their concern is real or imagined, scientists strongly debate and disagree," said Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg lawyer who represents local residents. "What is not debatable is my clients' property values have been substantially diminished. Many of them find it hard, if not impossible, to sell their properties."
NORM has been found in several other oil-producing states, and has been met with varying degrees of concern.
Tom FitzGerald, director the environmental group Kentucky Resources Council, said he believes the radiation around oil wells can cause cancer. "There is no therapeutic level of exposure," he said. "It is a sufficient health concern that it should be a priority."
That view is dismissed by John Ford, a project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory in Tulsa, Okla. He said people who live around oil fields generally have no reason to fear NORM.
"If you stand in the middle of an oil field, the rays from the sun you're being exposed to is worse for you than NORM," he said. "As far as everyone running scared, I can't begin to explain how much of a marginal thing this is. It is really not an issue."
Jeff Roberts, who is heading cleanup efforts in the Martha oil field for Ashland, said contaminated soil has been removed from well sites that showed higher than normal levels of radiation. That cleanup, he said, has been completed on 95 percent of the property affected. On the remaining 5 percent, property owners involved in the lawsuits have not allowed the company to do the work.
"We've told those residents we'd be more than glad to clean up, but they're still not allowing us on their property," Roberts said.
FitzGerald said local residents have become increasingly concerned that Ashland may not have removed all of the contaminated soil and pipes from the land that the company has claimed to have cleaned up. The company, which once operated an oil refinery in nearby Catlettsburg, collected an estimated 115,000 tons of contaminated soil from well sites and stored it inside a plastic covering at an abandoned surface mine, Roberts said.
However, Mullins said numerous metal pipes that show higher-than-normal levels of radiation were left on his property, and he also discovered pits filled with thickened crude that he believes should have been removed.
FitzGerald said he has received calls and letters raising similar concerns. As a result, he has requested that the state revisit the issue.
"The bulk of the work has been completed," he said. "The question that has been raised by some of the citizens is whether the work was done adequately and whether all of the contaminated sites have been identified and cleaned up."
Ashland spokesman Jim Vitak charges that some people involved in the lawsuits have been trying to create worry in the community to benefit their cases. He said people have been doing that by spreading inaccurate information.
"Our hope is that as the community discusses this issue, that people seek out the facts and not go strictly on word of mouth," Vitak said.
As for Mullins's eye-catching kitten, a state health official says that on its own it proves nothing about the possible effects of radiation.
"There are instances of aberrations in the animal kingdom where animals have been born with varying numbers of limbs," said Clyde Bolton, head of the Kentucky Division of Public Health Protection and Safety. "It can be simply a fluke of nature. That's a piece of information, but, in and of itself, it is not even close to being an indicator."