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.

Testing in basements in May 2002 showed benzene levels as high as 330 parts per billion. As fumes dissipated, chemical levels dropped, but one home tested in June still had a benzene level of twelve parts per billion on the main floor. Levels dropped to acceptable levels in July and August, when the health department tested three homes and found benzene levels below two parts per billion. In a draft health assessment released March 20, the department reported finding no increased rates of leukemia among Hartford residents and concluded that benzene doesn't pose a cancer risk under normal conditions.

The department reached much the same conclusion after testing eight homes in 1996 and 1997 when fumes weren't a problem. Although the department found benzene levels as high as 12.37 parts per billion, the levels didn't persist, so the health department sent letters to residents of tested homes assuring them that the chemicals in their basements weren't cause for concern.

Runkle says the state doesn't believe that air inside Hartford homes constitutes a health hazard when fumes aren't an obvious problem. But he can't be definitive. "I think your nose is a good indicator," he says. "I wouldn't say, necessarily, it's going to be a perfect indicator."

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.

The health department's studies aren't exhaustive. Cathy Copley, a department toxicologist who took the air samples and helped prepare the report released last month, told the Holiday Inn audience that a lack of money has hampered efforts. "We haven't done extensive year-round testing inside and outside," she said. "The work that I have done is not rigorous work."

Waligore says the state is trying to find money for more thorough air-quality studies. "We want to be able to know when conditions are such that people may need to be out of their homes," he says. "We don't want them to be exposed in any life-threatening way here."

Graham, the attorney considering a class-action lawsuit, says he's not discouraged by the health department's report.

"The government and the companies can say what they want," he says. "Certainly benzene, toluene, xylene, those compounds are known to be extremely hazardous to humans, even in small doses."


Cleaning up underground petroleum contamination isn't impossible. But it's expensive. In California, Unocal paid to bulldoze the town of Avila Beach, remove contaminated soil and rebuild after an estimated 400,000 gallons of oil from a leaking pipeline was discovered underground. The solution cost more than $100 million and was forced by citizens who sued under state environmental statutes. In Virginia, Texaco paid $50 million in damages to residents of Fairfax County and agreed to buy homes to settle a lawsuit after 200,000 gallons of oil leaked from a storage tank. All told, the settlement put the company on the hook for $200 million, which didn't include cleanup costs of more than $20 million and a $2.75 million fine.

In Hartford, Premcor last summer balked at installing vapor traps in basement drainholes, a stopgap solution that typically costs less than $1,000 per house. The company also didn't want to install venting systems in foundations. When the IEPA asked Premcor to consider such measures last summer, the company said it couldn't give an answer for at least two months. Cipriano, IEPA director, told the company that was unacceptable and requested a written response within two weeks. A month later, she got it.

In a letter to Cipriano, Bruce Jones, Premcor's environmental, health and safety vice president, noted that the company didn't acquire the facility until 1988, so it couldn't be solely responsible. As for interim measures to protect residents, Jones said Premcor was willing to discuss short-term solutions and participate in a study of groundwater problems as a way of settling pending violations of environmental laws on refinery property. The company would continue operating the flawed vapor-recovery system, but other companies should be required to help with a long-term solution, and Premcor expected the IEPA to give the company credit for past efforts to clean up the mess.

In other words, the days of voluntary measures performed as a public service had come to an end.

Two weeks after Jones sent the letter, Premcor shut down the refinery.

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