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.

Premcor is a tempting target for private attorneys. But dozens of lawsuits filed by village residents against the company and other refineries have produced few results.

Some cases have been settled out of court, but just who's paid -- and how much -- isn't known. "So far, when we ask the refineries what the results were, they say, 'Settlements are sealed,'" says Morgan.

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.

It's not clear what happened with a 1978 class-action suit filed against all three refineries in and near Hartford. The Madison County Circuit Clerk's office could not locate the lawsuit, but Eugene Overton, one of the plaintiffs, says he didn't get very much, considering his house caught fire twice in a two-week period. The first explosion was loud enough to bring him running from his yard, and he went without gas or electricity for more than a month.

"For all my damn trouble, I think I got $2,000 and I think they paid the insurance company back $4,000 -- I signed a thing for them to collect the insurance money back from Clark Oil," says Overton, who says he also collected $5,000 from a 1990 lawsuit filed against Clark and Shell. "Hell, that ain't nothing for breathing in benzene all these years."

Thirty-four residents sued Clark in 1991 and were joined by another nine plaintiffs the next year in a nearly identical lawsuit. Clark argued that it couldn't be held responsible for past pollution because of the bankruptcy, and Madison County Circuit Court Judge Phillip Kardis agreed, prompting the plaintiffs to withdraw their cases and pay the company a total of $2,448 in legal fees.

"We had a video of taking contaminated water out of somebody's basement and putting it in an old Ford from the 1930s or something," says Roy C. Dripps, an attorney who represented dozens of village residents in the early 1990s. "There were enough petrochemicals in the water to allow the car to run."

Several plaintiffs say the money they won after suing Clark and Shell in 1990 wasn't worth the trouble. Like Overton, most received a few thousand dollars.

"To sue a multimillion-dollar corporation, you're fighting a dead horse," says Douglas Neal, a former Hartford police officer who got $5,000 from the case settled in 1997. "When I went up and got my check that day, I saw a whole bunch of people who used to be my neighbors. They said, 'We got $5,000. You got your life back.'"

Neal says gasoline contamination prompted him to give up his police job in 1991 and allow the bank to foreclose on the home he had owned for about seven years. He now lives in Pinckneyville and works as a guard at Menard Correctional Center, a job he says "sucks." But it's better than living in fear.

"I drove by the house damn near all night long when I was on nights because I was concerned about the house burning down," he says. "Once a month, I'd be off for five days. We'd come down to Southern Illinois hoping the damn thing would burn down while we were gone. It never did."

But it came close.

"The hot-water heater, when it kicked on to heat the hot water, would ignite the gas fumes in the basement," Neal says. "My wife just happened to go downstairs one day to do laundry and came running up, saying, 'The basement's on fire!' You could see the flames all around the basement walls, like a stove flame, all the way around the walls from an inch to three inches tall. I knocked the flames down with a towel."

More than anything, Neal says, he worried about his family's health. "That's the reason we moved out," he says. "My wife's had headaches ever since."

Neal's former neighbors also say their health has suffered. Besides headaches, they've had breathing problems and skin rashes. Though they can't prove that gasoline contamination is the cause, they wonder.

"My children have migraines; I have migraines," says Kim Bedwell, Dennis Bedwell's wife. "I have a thyroid disorder. My husband and I, our red blood cells are enlarged, and we don't know what that is from. My youngest child, from birth until three or four years ago, every time she went in for a physical, she had blood in her urine. The pool is right underneath our home. Last spring was the first time we ever had the health department or the [state] EPA come and test our home for fumes -- all these years, me and my husband thought the only danger was fire."

Testing in Bedwell's home and three others last spring showed astronomical levels of hazardous chemicals -- one home had 11 million parts per billion of chemicals deemed a risk to human health. As in prior years, residents experienced nausea, fatigue, headaches, insomnia and burning noses and throats, all symptoms associated with chemicals found in their homes. It was the first time the state had conducted indoor-air tests during a Hartford fume crisis, and results promped the state to declare that fumes inside homes constituted a public-health hazard.

Benzene, a carcinogen linked with leukemia, is considered the most dangerous chemical associated with gasoline. Benzene levels of more than 50 parts per billion can cause health problems after two weeks of exposure, according to the federal government. For exposures ranging from two weeks to one year, concentrations of four parts per billion in a home warrant further investigation, under state and federal guidelines. However, those guidelines are considered conservative. Ken Runkle, environmental toxicologist with the state health department, says a more realistic threshold for exposures longer than two weeks is ten parts per billion. "We make a public-health call based on that," he says.

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