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Daily Journal: Residents get relief: Suit finally settled against Shell Oil

12/13/2007
By Jon Krenek
[email protected]
815-937-3370

El Rancho subdivision resident Nancy Hinton pays about $35 a month for bottled water and about $60 periodically to test her well water for contamination. Such expenses are typical for Limestone Township residents concerned about contamination from a 1988 Shell Oil pipeline spill.

Some even pay up to $10,000 to link to water mains — if such a water main is even available.

Soon everyone in the area will likely have access to potable tap water, thanks to the $46 million settlement of a class action lawsuit against Shell Oil approved Tuesday.

The cash, those close to the case say, will jump-start the process for extending water mains and extensions to individual homes throughout a one-mile area around the spill site.

Hinton is one of hundreds of residents who attended community meetings on the hot-button issue in 2002.

“I was hopeful, but I wasn’t sure it would actually happen,” said Hinton, who expressed both pleasure and surprise at the historic settlement. “It has taken so long, and you kind of lose faith after so long.”

The settlement will provide an estimated $20 million to extend water mains and hookups to homes, and $26 million for a fund to compensate residents for the spill. Residents will be able to file claims for past expenses such as bottled water, groundwater testing and even lost property values.

The future expense of water bills for those linked to city water will also be covered, according to the agreement.

The process for filing claims is currently being established.

“It will be very simple,” said Attorney Mike Axline, a California-based environmental attorney who represents Limestone Township residents. “They’ll get what they ask for with a fund this size.”

Bad water

The class action lawsuit began as a personal injury case filed by Limestone Township resident Edith Quick and her family, who allege they suffered serious health problems due to contaminated well water. Kankakee attorney Joseph Yurgine, who filed the original suit in 2001, eventually expanded it to include 1,500 Limestone Township property owners in a court-approved class action.

Yurgine said the personal injury case remains active, but will be decided separately from the class action lawsuit.

The accident released 100,000 gallons of SU 2000 gasoline into Limestone Township’s aquifer, some of which has migrated in tiny amounts as fuel-additive MTBE up to one mile from the original spill site. Illinois Environmental Protection Agency project manager John Richardson, who oversees the spill site, said amounts of MTBE and benzene measured in parts-per-billion are still found on occasion.

Both contaminants have been linked to cancer, but in all but one occasion, they were found at levels considered safe in drinking water. For its part, Shell Oil samples 70 test wells quarterly, and runs a continuous groundwater filtration system to keep pollutants from spreading.

“They’re trying to keep any additional contaminants from migrating,” said Richardson. “We think what they’ve found in the test wells is what escaped years ago when the release occurred.”

Future unseen

Cracks in the underground limestone aquifer beneath Limestone Township have always created uncertainty as to where the contaminants will move — and when they might resurface. Shell Oil spokesman Stan Mays said the $20 million investment for water mains is the best solution for safety. “The water supply is a long-term solution that enhances property values,” said Mays.

The company is currently seeking easements to build water mains under the $1.4 million settlement with the Kankakee County State’s Attorney and Illinois Attorney General. Those water mains will run about a mile each in a single direction according to Aqua Illinois general manager Jerry Connolly.

Axline said the change will transform the entire area’s water supply from wells to city water.

“This will complete the circle,” said Axline. “Then they will all stop using well water.”

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