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.

Phillips moved into his house, located two blocks from the Clark refinery, five years ago. He grew up in the area, and he'd heard about the gasoline underground. But, like the IEPA, he assumed that the problem was solved, despite the occasional odd odor in his basement. That changed on Mother's Day weekend last year, when the smell wouldn't go away.

"It kept building and building and building," he recalls. "Monday, I took the day off -- we can't ventilate the house without the doors' being open. When you opened the basement door, it was the kind of smell that would knock you over." Finally he called the fire department. "When the fireman came in and opened the basement door, he stuck his head in, shut the door and asked me to follow him out of the house," he says. "We were at an explosive level."

Phillips and at least three of his neighbors were evacuated. Some accepted Premcor's offer to put them up in a hotel for several weeks while their basements were ventilated. Phillips did not. His basement windows don't open, and he didn't want to leave his house unattended with the windows and doors wide open.

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.

Premcor's vapor-recovery system does not extend to Phillips' street, even though Hartford city records show that problems with gasoline fumes on the street date back to the 1970s. All told, fumes invaded at least six homes last spring. Phillips has spent months calling elected officials, the IEPA and the state health department, with no solutions in sight. In July, he got a letter from IEPA director Renee Cipriano, who explained that the state doesn't have any money to clean up the mess and that petroleum products aren't considered hazardous wastes under the federal Superfund program.

"It's the state's fault, as far as I'm concerned," Phillips says. "They're not the ones who dumped however many millions of gallons of gas. They're the ones who let it happen. I asked the attorney general's office: 'What demand did you make upon any refinery to instigate this vapor-recovery system?' They said, 'The proposal was submitted to us, it looks good, go ahead and do it.' It seems like no one ever checked with residents to see if it was working or not. No one complained, but they never asked anyone."

Phillips also has harsh words for refineries.

"The refineries don't feel the need to do anything, or they don't feel the responsibility to do anything," he says. "My reaction to that -- among other things -- is, I can't begin to put a number on the billions and billions and billions of dollars these refineries have made running gas underneath our house and underneath other people's houses and streets, and to turn around and not take responsibility for what happened is borderline criminal."

Eric Schaefer, former chief of enforcement for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says Hartford isn't alone.

"The pattern of having contamination below refineries is nothing new, in part because refineries are old," says Schaefer, who resigned a year ago to take a job as an environmental advocate with the Rockefeller Family Fund in Washington, D.C. "The community gets taken for granted, and people end up getting stuck with it. I keep reminding industry audiences: 'What would you do if this happened in your neighborhood? You wouldn't put up with it for a minute.'"

Owners of the Hartford refinery now under Premcor's control have had more pressing problems than pollution.

Clark Oil and Refining changed hands in 1981, when it was purchased by Clayton-based Apex Oil. Plummeting oil and gasoline prices forced Apex into bankruptcy in 1987, but Apex owner Paul Anthony Novelly, one of the wealthiest men in St. Louis, forged a deal with the Horsham Corporation, a Canadian holding company, that allowed him to keep his hands on Clark while ensuring the survival of Apex.

Novelly and his partner Samuel Goldstein, both board members of Horsham, formed a partnership with Horsham, which purchased Clark, Apex's biggest asset. Novelly and Goldstein retained a 40 percent share of Clark. In 1992, Novelly sold his share to the Canadian company (which by then had changed its name to TrizecHahn) for $100 million and a ski resort in Colorado that he later sold for $77.6 million. He remains CEO of Apex, a now-solvent oil-trading firm with annual revenues in excess of $1 billion.

The bankruptcy was controversial, but many saw the Horsham deal as a brilliant business move. "Novelly took the company, ran up a huge amount of bank debt, bankrupted the thing and, basically, he bought the asset [Clark] out of bankruptcy himself with Horsham," says Mark Erzen, a Chicago environmental attorney who's sued Apex to force the company to pay cleanup costs at an Indiana dump site. "He was on the board of Horsham, so it was a lot of the same players. It was a real big stink as to whether you can basically work both sides of the fence, and he did it."

In 1995, Occidental Petroleum bought a 19 percent stake in Clark, and the Blackstone Group, a New York investment bank, became the majority owner when it bought out TrizecHahn in 1997. Although Blackstone's and Occidental's control of Premcor was diluted when the company went public last year, they remain the largest stockholders, with Blackstone owning slightly less than 40 percent and Occidental slightly more than 10 percent.

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