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.

Mark Shrimpe, vice president of the Hartford/Wood River Terminal, where barges are loaded with gasoline, told the IEPA that a ten-inch pipeline from the Clark refinery to the terminal had been coming up short by 360 barrels -- or slightly more than 15,000 gallons -- each week. Shrimpe told investigators that the shortage was due either to malfunctioning gauges or a leak. Shrimpe suspected a leak, but the line was never pressure-tested to determine whether that was true, the IEPA reported. The line was shut down at the time of the IEPA report.

Shrimpe, who no longer works at the terminal, recalls the shortages in the 1980s, but he can't remember how long the line was coming up short before it was shut down. "I was being short and they weren't being long on their records, so it was going somewhere," he says. "It wasn't really per week; it was per shipment. It was about a 15,000-barrel shipment we were receiving, and we'd be 360 short. I wasn't going to pay for the amount we were short. Therefore we started running through a Marathon pipeline."

The state wants to know more about the pipeline that the IEPA believes was replaced sometime between 1988 and 1992. "Given the location, we think it is very likely that this is one of the principal sources, if not the principal source," Waligore says. "I think [it was leaking] for a long period of time. I really can't say with any great certainty. If you have something that's corroding -- which was the case here; it was corrosion -- it goes on over time and you may not know when it starts."

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.

So far, neither Premcor nor Apex Oil, the former parent company of Clark until the refinery changed hands in 1988, have been much help. "In this instance, the most telling record actually is their own inventory records," Waligore says. "We don't have those, and Premcor is now claiming, with the transfer from Apex, they somehow lost the records. I can't comment on whether that's true or not."

The IEPA also drew conclusions from the chemical composition of the gasoline. Samples were analyzed by Clark, Amoco and Shell, which at the time owned the refinery now operated by Conoco-Phillips. Testing by all three companies showed the same result: The gasoline beneath Hartford was refined with hydrofluoric acid, a chemical used by Clark but not by other refineries in the area.

Once again, Clark ducked blame.

In response to a 1990 lawsuit filed by residents against Clark and Shell, Clark attorneys argued that 294,000 gallons of gasoline spilled from a Shell pipeline in late 1989 caused fires and fumes the next spring. Attorneys for Shell noted that the gas spilled in 1989 was unleaded and the gasoline beneath Hartford was leaded fuel.

In 1993, Clark produced a report pointing the finger at other refineries. By analyzing samples taken from seventeen wells during the last six months of 1992, Clark determined that the average ratio of isomers in the Hartford gas was 1.69, compared with 2.14 for gasoline refined by Clark and 0.98 at other refineries. Given those numbers, the gasoline under Hartford had to be a mixture of fuels from several sources, Clark concluded.

Even then, the report led others to conclude that Clark was the major contributor to the underground pollution, given that the ratio average was closer to that of gasoline refined with hydrofluoric acid than that of gas refined with the sulfuric acid used at other refineries. "That's certainly Shell's position," Morgan says. It's an argument the state may also use. "I would say if we ever have to go before a court, that's a factor that might be relevant," says Waligore.

Fingerprinting gasoline can be tricky. Two experts not associated with the Hartford case say they'd rely on more than an analysis of isomer ratios before reaching a conclusion.

"Knowing nothing else, it sounds like it's reasonable to believe there's a mixture," says Dr. Scott Stout, a geochemistry-research leader for Battelle Memorial Institute in Massachusetts, a consulting firm that tracks down underground pollution. "Things have certainly evolved a lot since the early '90s. There are more sophisticated techniques available."

Richard Doherty, an environmental engineer with GeoInsight, based in Massachusetts, says tracing the source of gasoline is tough. "A lot of times people come up stumped," says Doherty, who has testified in several pollution-liability cases as an expert witness. "There are a lot of different methods. If you can find an additive that only one company used, that would be great. There are additives like that, but, of course, companies don't like to let on."

Under pressure from the attorney general's office, Clark in 1992 installed a $5 million vapor-recovery system that sucks fumes out of the ground.

At first, the new system appeared to work. Although residents say they still smelled odors after heavy rains, the IEPA received no complaints for more than a decade after the system was installed. The agency assumed that the problem was solved.

But the system, which remains in operation, has flaws. For one thing, it doesn't reach all areas where gasoline fumes find their way to the surface -- something residents such as David Phillips found out the hard way.

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