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.

"To be very honest, we don't know what's out there in Hartford," Waligore says.

Ringed by three refineries, Hartford's 1,500 residents have grown accustomed to odd odors in the air and occasional spills from pipelines beneath streets.

The Conoco-Phillips complex adjacent to Hartford
Jennifer Silverberg
The Conoco-Phillips complex adjacent to Hartford

The first refinery opened in 1908 and closed in 1985 -- it's now being used by Amoco to store millions of gallons of gasoline. The biggest refinery, now owned by Conoco-Phillips, was built in 1917. The Premcor refinery, with 300 workers, was the village's largest employer until it closed last fall. (On Monday, Premcor announced plans to sell part of its Hartford facility to Conoco-Phillips.)

Refining oil is dirty business. In 2000, the most recent year that statistics are available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Premcor and the Conoco-Phillips refinery poured 1,435 tons of pollutants into the air and the Mississippi River, helping Madison County achieve the distinction of the second-most polluted county in Illinois and the nation's 69th-dirtiest county. Peoria County, in central Illinois, ranks first in the state.

In Hartford, the first suspicious smell -- some described it as a skunk odor -- surfaced in 1966 in the basement of Woodrow Wilson High School. Sinclair, which then operated the refinery now owned by Premcor, performed some tests and pronounced it a case of methane, a compound not associated with gasoline. Probably swamp gas, residents thought.

As years passed, the smell got worse, usually after heavy rains and always on a few streets on the north end of town. At one point, the jail had to be evacuated and a handful of sickened schoolchildren sent home.

On the night of April 23, 1970, an explosion at a home knocked blocks from the foundation and blew out a picture window. A police officer who arrived before firefighters found the furnace ablaze. The state fire marshal's office detected gasoline in the ground at the home's water meter, but fumes not from gasoline were found in holes bored near the home -- police records don't indicate the source of those smells. Many continued to dismiss the problem as swamp or sewer gas.

Three years later, firefighters found a red flame about six inches high burning in the basement of another home. Explosive levels of gas persisted for several days despite efforts to ventilate the house with fans. In 1975, another basement ignited, again with no serious damage. This time, the gas was stopped when a drain hole was plugged. Once again, tests determined that the gas was mostly methane.

Then, in the spring of 1978, all hell broke loose. Police received 76 complaints about gas odors that were strong enough to make eyes and throats burn. Firefighters responded to five fires -- in one case, a kitchen was engulfed when firefighters arrived. Odor complaints began in March and continued through early June, forcing residents to go without heat or hot water, some for several weeks, as they turned off pilot lights and aired out their homes. The power company shut off electricity to more than a dozen homes.

This time, the swamp-gas explanation didn't fly. The odor was obvious: It was straight-up gasoline.

Two weeks before the first fire in 1978, an underground gasoline line ruptured about two blocks from homes that caught fire. The line was owned by Clark, which had purchased the Sinclair refinery a decade earlier. Available records don't indicate how much spilled -- oil companies weren't required to report spills to the state. But enough gas remained to make the soil reek, according to an official with the state fire marshal's office who visited the spill site after the first fire and found explosive fumes just below the surface.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and oil companies dug several test wells in neighborhoods and hit 88-octane gasoline at 32-and-a-half feet, just above the water table. In some places, the gasoline pool was more than eleven feet deep.

The IEPA figured that the lake came from a series of small spills and pipeline leaks that built up over years until 1 million gallons had collected. The state also determined that the gasoline matched Clark's brand.

But the IEPA was hardly a tough guy. Although the agency could fine companies $10,000 for a spill and $1,000 a day for each day a spill continued, the state fined just one polluter in 1978. The agency saw itself as a facilitator that worked with industry. "You could fine all day if you wanted to, but that's not the purpose of our operation," IEPA emergency-response specialist Geof Langley told the Alton Telegraph in 1979.

Waligore makes no apologies for his predecessors. "The state of environmental regulation was more primitive than it is now," he says. Even today, the law doesn't clearly state that spills of petroleum products from underground pipes must be reported if contamination doesn't reach surface water. "A lot of times, very large spills, if there's no proven impact at the time they occur to water, are not strictly reportable, although they may constitute pollution," Waligore says. "You could be violating the [state] Environmental Protection Act, but you may not have to report it."

Without accepting responsibility, Clark drilled two recovery wells in 1978 and 1979 and started pumping gasoline out of the ground -- the company called it a public service. The well system designed by John Mathes and Associates of Columbia, Missouri, won prizes from the Consulting Engineers Council of Illinois, the Illinois Society of Professional Engineers and the St. Louis section of the Association of Civil Engineers. If the two wells didn't get all the gasoline, the rest would be removed with a deeper 100-foot well, according to a 1982 story in the Belleville News-Democrat.

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