Fueled by Fear

Refineries stuck Hartford with a toxic pool of gasoline that just won't go away. Homes burn and residents get sick, but nobody's helping.

Twenty minutes into the meeting, lawyer D. Jeannine Kelly asks whether everyone can hear. Several near the back of the Alton Holiday Inn meeting room say no. Kelly adjusts the microphone while a man in the back row stands up.

"You ain't saying nothing anyway," he mutters as he walks out the door.

These 50 residents of Hartford, Illinois, are looking for answers and action, but this mid-March meeting is just more of the same. They've heard nothing new from the half-dozen lawyers at the front of the room.

Clark Oil and Refining — now Premcor — was the major contributor to the pool of gas under Hartford, according to a report prepared in the 1990s by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Jennifer Silverberg
Clark Oil and Refining — now Premcor — was the major contributor to the pool of gas under Hartford, according to a report prepared in the 1990s by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Hartford resident David Phillips’ house is two blocks from Premcor’s facility.
Jennifer Silverberg
Hartford resident David Phillips’ house is two blocks from Premcor’s facility.

More studies are needed. We're not sure how big the problem is. No one will take responsibility. The state doesn't have any money to help. We can't guarantee there won't be more evacuations this spring. We can't rule out more explosions and fires. We're not sure of the health impacts. And we sure feel sorry for you.

"I know you're not necessarily hearing the answers you want to hear, but we're trying to be straight," offers John Waligore, an attorney with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Beneath Hartford lies a lake of gasoline. No one knows its exact size, but it's huge by any measure -- estimates range from 900,000 to 3.8 million gallons. Testing has shown homes contaminated with benzene and other hazardous chemicals, prompting the Illinois Department of Public Health to declare the lake a public-health hazard.

Hartford's residents aren't surprised: The village has been living with this nightmare since 1966.

Noxious fumes invade basements during heavy rains that raise the water table, forcing people from their homes. Residents wonder whether headaches, breathing problems and skin rashes are annoyances or harbingers of things to come. After all, benzene is a carcinogen and other chemicals in gasoline have been linked to birth defects, damage to internal organs and other health problems. Flames are a more direct threat. Through the years, more than a dozen homes have caught fire, some exploding, some igniting as quietly as stoves.

Tonight's meeting called by Kelly, a private attorney looking to sign up clients, is supposed to give residents a chance to ask questions and get updates from state officials. That so many in the crowd seem skeptical is understandable. Past lawsuits haven't helped, the government hasn't helped and oil refineries in the area most definitely have not helped. When it comes to cleaning up, the watchword has always been "voluntary," which, in Hartford, translates into "as little as possible." Solutions paid for by the companies have been patchwork and ineffective, and environmental regulators have let them get away with it.

In what has become a familiar game of point-the-finger, refineries blame each other. The prime suspect has long been a refinery that closed in late September. Now owned by the Premcor Refining Group, the 62-year-old refinery, like others in the area, has changed hands several times. It operated under the name Clark from 1968 until 2000, when Clark USA changed its name to Premcor, which is supposed to signify "premier corporation."

Testing done more than a decade ago showed that most of the gasoline originated at Premcor's refinery, which once processed 64,000 barrels of crude oil each day. Now that the company has shut down the refinery, state environmental officials acknowledge that their hands may be tied. That's why lawyers for the state environmental-protection agency and the attorney general's office have accepted Kelly's invitation to attend this meeting. Citizens, they say, may be in a better position to force solutions than the government.

James Morgan, an assistant state attorney general, has been dealing with this for a dozen years, pressuring refineries, and Premcor in particular, to clean up. Tonight he tells residents that the state is asking refineries with property in or near Hartford to produce all the information they possess about contamination that could have spread from their pipes and plants. It's akin to asking the accused to hand over the hanging rope. In this case, the "or else" is an unproven stick.

"It would be suing companies under theories we haven't used before and that no one's used before," says Morgan, who suggests that private lawsuits could provide remedies -- damage awards to individuals -- not available to the government. "We're trying the voluntary approach first. It will take more time. It will take more time than the return of rains and high levels in the river. I think we're looking at the investigation going on for a couple more months."

That's not good enough for Dennis Bedwell, who's lived in Hartford for 27 years.

"You threaten to fine these people $10,000 a day and you may get somewhere," Bedwell tells the lawyers. "We're hearing the same old thing. We're hearing refineries telling the government what they're going to do."

The lawyers at the front of the room aren't the only ones present. Near the back sits St. Louis attorney Philip C. Graham, who's contemplating a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Hartford residents.

"You'll see a fight like you've never seen before," he promises. "I think this thing's going to make Times Beach look like the proverbial walk in the park."

That remains to be seen. Nearly four decades after the first fume surfaced and more than a quarter-century after the first house fire, environmental regulators still have more questions than answers.

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