El Dorado, Kansas

"Smells Like Money to Us"

In many ways, the identity of El Dorado is closely tied to the two oil refineries. Back in 1965, I can remember the town had a big parade to commemorate fifty years of oil. The oil industry was a huge part of the local economy and added together, the two refineries probably were the greatest source of employment for the town. I knew a lot of kids whose parents worked in Wichita at Boeing, Beech, or Cessna, but I knew more kids whose parents worked at one of the two refineries.

In Kansas, the wind is usually out of the south in warm weather and out of the north in winter. With one refinery at the edge of town in each of those directions, the prevailing wind almost always carried the smell of refinery. The smell could vary quite a bit, too. Some days, what you mostly smelled was crude which had its own sharp melange of smells. But there were days when they would be pouring some nasty waste products into the flares to burn off and you could get a variety of stenches from the sulfurous odor of mercaptans to the sharp bite of toluene or benzene compounds.

The flares were the most obvious component of the refineries. Skelly Refinery had four of them in a row along the south edge of the plant while Fina had a single flare way out at the north end of town. Skelly was a much bigger refinery and some nights, those four flares would all be burning with a tall pyre of flame bright enough to make it almost hard to see the screen at the Star-Vu Drive-In theater. The flares burned off waste gases which were basically petroleum byproducts so rancid and corrupted with impurities that you couldn't efficiently "crack" them into burnable hydrocarbons. And since these were the primary sources of pollution in the town of El Dorado, they sometimes produced some really repulsive smells.

Living in an oil field was part of the local culture. Every high school kid in my home town had heard tales of "riding oil wells" and how dangerous it was, though I never actually met someone who had done it. The concept here was that you could climb up onto one of the working pumps with their rocking-horse motion and climb out onto the arm and ride it. Because these pumps were usually coated with crude oil and because they were driven by a massive counterweight, it made the horror stories of kids falling and getting crushed very believable.

Oil fields occasionally produced sink holes If you pump enough liquid out of underground chambers, the ground can cave in. The American Legion Golf Course had a sinkhole just to the right of the third green. It was basically a funnel-shaped hole in the ground surrounded by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire. The ground around the edges of this hole was soaked with oil and looking down into it, it seemed bottomless. Any golf ball that errantly went over the wall was gone. Even if you could see it perched on the slope leading down into the hole, the thing just seemed too terrifying and dangerous for you to want to retrieve it - even a brand-new Titleist wasn't worth the risk!

So living in oil country was just a fact of life. I remember bringing home college classmates for the weekend and having them wrinkle their noses as we pulled off the Turnpike. "What the hell is that smell?" was the first question I always got. That smell was the local economy at work, my father's primary source of income, and just a basic fact of life. Once I heard a national radio interview with El Dorado's city manager. At one point in the show, the interviewer asked the city manager how we tolerated the smell. The response was, "It smells like money to us."

To me, it smelled like Hell had sprung a leak.