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Law suit claims benzene leaks caused fatal leukemia

Late teacher’s estate sues oil companies

May 30, 2011 11:44 PM

The Telegraph

EDWARDSVILLE – The estate of a beloved Roxana School District teacher and administrator, who died of leukemia in early 2008, is suing Shell Oil Co. and BP Products North America, claiming leaks from their refinery caused her illness.

Jeffry Ochs, special administrator of the estate of Debra Ochs, is suing on his own behalf, as the victim’s husband, and on behalf of their minor child, Annika Ochs.

The lawsuit filed in Madison County Circuit Court claims that while Debra Ochs was visiting her grandparents in South Roxana and while serving as a teacher and principal at Central Elementary School, she was “exposed to and inhaled, ingested or otherwise absorbed benzene, which was emitted, leaked, spilled, dumped and otherwise discharged into the air, and surface/groundwater by defendants.

“Benzene is a highly toxic chemical and is classified as a human carcinogen. Benzene exposure has been linked to certain blood cancers, including acute myelogenous leukemia,” the suit claims.

Debra Ochs died of acute myelogenous leukemia Jan. 8, 2008, after a five-year battle with the disease.

She was a teacher, principal and curriculum director in the Roxana School District from 1993 until she died.

Colleagues said she will always be remembered for her courage in fighting the disease and in fighting for the children.

Her story was told in the publication, “Hope,” published by the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis.

During her hospital stay, Ochs participated in a pioneering research project – a collaborative effort between Siteman and Washington University’s Genome Sequencing Center that is supported by an $11 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.

Roxana faculty, staff and friends planted a memorial oak tree and bench near the school in her memory.

The suit claims both oil refining companies owned and operated the refinery during the time Ochs stayed or worked near that location.

Plaintiffs claim that defendants had the knowledge that benzene is toxic and may cause cancer, but negligently built, maintained, managed and operated the Wood River facilities.

The suit claims thousands of pounds of benzene were discharged into the air and ground water.

“The release of benzene from the Wood River facilities occurred throughout the time of their operation, causing a plume of benzene-containing pollutants to extend beyond the boundaries of the Wood River facilities and into the adjoining neighborhoods and community,” the suit claims.

The plaintiffs claim the defendants failed to exercise ordinary care in failing to prevent the harmful effects of the alleged leaks.

The suit includes three counts, asking for at least $50,000 in damages on each count. It asks for damages for the loss of Debra Ochs, emotional support and so forth, and for the pain and suffering she endured as a result of the cancer.

The suit was filed on Jan. 20.

BP has filed an answer denying the allegations or claiming it lacks sufficient knowledge of many of them, such as Debra Ochs’ illness.

The firm acknowledges certain levels of benzene exposure are hazardous, but denies causing Debra Ochs’ cancer.

“BPNA’s operations were at all relevant times conducted in accordance with the then-existing state of the art in conformity with the generally recognized state of technological and scientific knowledge existing at the time of the operations at issue,” the answer claims.

The company also states it acted with due care in accordance with the law.

Shell has not filed an answer. A company spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The problem of refinery emissions in Roxana has come into sharper focus recently as the Illinois Environmental Protection has been digging test wells and taking other actions to detect possible leaks in the area.

State officials said they have detected some emissions recently, but they have downplayed the level and danger of those emissions.

An IEPA official said the agency has been closely monitoring the area around the plant since a benzene release in 1986, when the plant was owned by Shell Oil Co.

Shell has agreed to pick up the tab for the monitoring, because that company was the owner during the 1986 benzene release. Benzene is a component of gasoline but is toxic and may cause cancer.

IEPA officials said there is benzene in the soil around the plant, but it is 40 to 45 feet below the surface.

Shell announced the increased monitoring in 2009. The company said it would check for benzene, which was released from an underground pipeline in 1986.

A total of 8,400 gallons of benzene leaked from the pipeline in 1986. That line extended from the plant to barge loading facilities on the Mississippi River, along a route parallel to Rand Avenue.

The underground pipeline was abandoned and replaced with an above-ground section of pipe.

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