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Neodesha, Kan., Has New Hope for a Cleaner Future

The first commercial oil well west of the Mississippi River was drilled here 116 years ago.

Oil still makes Neodesha special - but not in a good way.

Just under this town of 2,800 in southeastern Kansas is a sea of toxic oil that has, from time to time, gurgled to the surface - sometimes by a church, sometimes on the softball field.

The oil contamination comes from a refinery built on the edge of town in 1897 and shuttered in about 1970 without a cleanup.

But after decades of battling the sludge and years of attempting to sue oil giant BP, residents have some hopeful news.

In a surprise turnabout last month, a judge ruled that BP was liable for damages and a jury now must decide if BP should pay what the city wants - a half-billion dollars.

"We are just ecstatic," said David Edgar, who, with his brother and father, represented the city in court.

BP has appealed the ruling.

Scott Dean, BP spokesman, said the company accepted full responsibility for addressing contamination at the site and has promised remedial action.

Dean said he could not discuss the matter further. "If there is a new trial then it will be discussed," he said.

For now, the city is hoping it can win the $480 million it's asked for.

Why so much?

The contamination underlies a good portion of the town, which decreases property values, causes a health hazard and prevents development, city officials say.

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