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.

What the public didn't see were reports from Mathes making it clear that the lake of gasoline under Hartford wasn't going to go away.


In 1979, Mathes told Clark that approximately 10 million gallons of petroleum products lay beneath its refinery. Five years later, Mathes told the company that cleaning up the smaller plume beneath the village was cost-prohibitive.

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.

For one thing, there were probably 4 million gallons of gasoline under Hartford -- four times larger than the IEPA estimate -- when pumping began, according to Mathes' report issued in 1984. Pumping had removed about 800,000 gallons, but the two recovery wells could remove no more than an additional half-million gallons, which would leave the village sitting atop 2.7 million gallons of gasoline. Extracting gasoline that had soaked into soil as opposed to removing pools of gas that floated above the water table would be "unjustifiable and uneconomical," the consultants wrote.

"Ultimately, the potential recovery options available to Clark Oil rest upon the IEPA's decision of 'how clean is clean,'" the consultants wrote.

IEPA took no immediate action on either report. It's not clear when the state received the 1984 report. Morgan recalls that the state attorney general's office received the report on contamination beneath the refinery in the early 1990s. "My memory is, we couldn't establish a connection between the village contamination and the refinery contamination and we didn't really have a regulatory hook in place at that time to have them aggressively address the contamination under the facility," Morgan says. "It was basically 'monitor and pump at your own schedule.'"

The IEPA and the state attorney general's office sent Premcor a notice of violation for pollution beneath the refinery last June. Premcor hasn't conceded that it's responsible for pollution on its own property. Determining whether contamination migrated from a source outside the refinery is one of the goals of a groundwater-monitoring plan Premcor gave the IEPA in December. The IEPA rejected the plan. For one thing, the company didn't propose drilling recovery wells, either on its own property or in the village. "Presently Premcor is putting together an investigation," Waligore says. "They are a little bit more willing to cooperate as to the refinery itself than they are with the residential area."

Refining petroleum requires huge amounts of water, so much that refineries have changed the natural flow of groundwater in Hartford. Water that would otherwise move toward the Mississippi instead travels toward refinery wells that extract as much as a million gallons of water per day. Premcor says it will continue pumping water indefinitely to prevent contamination beneath the refinery from spreading.

Despite the pumping of underground gasoline that began in the summer of 1978, four fires broke out the next spring. But Clark's recovery wells appeared to make a difference in ensuing years.

After Clark installed the second well, in the summer of 1979, Hartford enjoyed a decade with just two fires, one in 1981 and another in 1985. The fire and police departments received just eleven odor complaints during the 1980s. Longtime residents say fumes still came with spring rains, but they learned to deal with them.

Then came the spring of 1990, when heavy rain ended a two-year drought and any notion that Clark had solved the problem. Five homes caught fire, with one burning to the ground. Explosive levels of gas were found in several other buildings, including a senior center.

Eight months after the 1990 fires, the IEPA issued a report stating that between that between 900,000 and 3.8 million gallons remained under Hartford. The report pinned the blame on Clark, which at that point had pumped out nearly 1.2 million gallons.

Officials with Clark and other refineries were granted access to the report because the companies helped prepare it. The public, however, was not allowed to see the document. Residents whose homes were uninhabitable learned of the report only after it was leaked to the media. Even today, the IEPA will not share the full document with the public. When the Riverfront Times requested access to the report under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, long sections, including the entire final page, were blacked out.

Waligore, the IEPA lawyer who determined which parts of the report should be excised, defends his decision to keep parts secret, including recommendations for dealing with the mess. "Those are just preliminary recommendations," he says. Morgan, the lawyer with the state attorney general's office, also supports the secrecy. "This is what one person within the agency thought," he says. "It's not representative of the agency as a whole." The state, Morgan says, wants to avoid the prospect of environmental regulators' being second-guessed by the public.

Even without the recommendations, the report is damning.

"The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has determined that a large pool of hydrocarbon situated under the village of Hartford was apparently leaked by Clark Oil and Refining Corporation from pipelines associated with their ... refinery," the report states. "Available evidence concerning the chemical composition of the hydrocarbon as well as the hydrogeology of the area support this conclusion."

The report revealed two potential sources, one an abandoned pipeline owned by Sinclair and operated by Arco that had been left full of unleaded gasoline to prevent corrosion. When the companies checked, the line was leaking and missing 10,500 gallons. A Clark pipeline may have been a bigger problem.

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